Thursday 9 May 2013

The unwritten

On a whim, I bought a book of brief essays by photographers on photographs they had not taken. Alongside some predictable pieces – the photo taken without any film in the camera, the car crash at which the photographer had to decide whether to do something useful or get his camera out – there are good ones in which the photographers appear to recognise that what they were seeking to capture simply couldn’t be done.* For a while I mused on the idea of a book of writing by writers on books (stories, poems, memoirs, novels) they had not written.

Or maybe they did start to write but gave up – because the piece fell so far short of their intentions, or because they lacked the skill or experience to carry it through, or because of something as banal as libel laws … The giving up, or the not even starting, could be accounted a failure – but because failing is what writers do most of the time, in relation to what they are seeking to achieve (at best, with luck and skill and perseverance, we fail better), that’s hardly a helpful way of looking at it. More interesting is the idea of resistance, of how a subject may not just be resistant to being written about (this happens all the time: the engagement with this resistance is why we write)** but on occasion prove wholly intractable, impossible to bring to page.

(Soldiers returning from war: it is common for them not to speak of their war experiences, even – or especially – to their families. Children who have been abused may be given crayons and paper, or soft toys, to picture or act out what they cannot put into words. And it’s not just the bad stuff that’s resistant: ‘happiness writes white’.)

Famously, some writers simply stop writing: Rimbaud, Juan Rulfo. I’d guess that many writers have unwritten books – material that continues to resist, however often they return to it. Resistance is possibly the main spur of formal experiment: if the given forms obstruct rather than facilitate what you are trying to write, you have to change them or invent new ones. (And even when a book does get written, these truisms about writing apply: that what is left out is as important as what is put in; and that though you may think you are writing about one thing, the finished work may turn out to be about something else.)

I still think this is not a bad idea for a book. I like the perverse aspect of writing about what you cannot write about. At present it remains unwritten.

* There’s an instance of not-photographing in Dan O’Brien’s War Reporter, out from CBe in September. The reporter/photographer Paul Watson is invited to attend the public stoning of a rapist in Somalia. After the man is dead, the court sheikhs are angry that he did not take out his camera: ‘Why did you not/ take pictures? Because you wanted me to./ Because this time I did not want the world/ to see.’

** It happens in translation too: the resistance of one language to being taken over into another. Anne Carson: ‘There is something maddeningly attractive about the untranslatable, about a word that goes silent in transit.’

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