Circus town

Most cities of the world have one or two buildings which epitomise the city.  Paris has the Eiffel Tower, Barcelona has Gaudi, London has the Tower and Big Ben, Sydney has the Opera House.  By contrast, Melbourne doesn’t have an unmistakable landmark.  It has several charming buildings that residents revere, but no great statement monument.

In a way, this is in keeping with a certain lovely modesty the city possesses, and a feel for genre, so to speak.  Yet I recently discovered a building, an institution, that if Melbourne were to stoop to easy knowability it would qualify as the emblem of the city par excellence.  It is the National Institute of Circus Arts, or NICA, a huge purpose-built structure of corporate blue glass hiding in a residential side street in the suburb of Prahran.

There is so much here that is characteristic of the city: unlikeliness, the quixotic, the dedication to the arts in all their forms, the blessing of old-moneyed philanthropy.  So when the planners in the Federal Government were thinking of building a National Institute dedicated to the circus – to the circus! – they must have realised there was only one place for it: the city known throughout the British Empire of the 1880s as the most wondrous in the realm — Marvellous Melbourne.

NICA offers a huge range of courses to both professional circus artists and curious members of the public, including children, teenagers and adults.  There are short courses throughout the year, and special holiday programs.  Secondary school students can combine circus training with their studies; older students can do full-blown Bachelor degrees in Circus Arts.  In fact, auditions for the Bachelor of Circus Arts begin this week across the country.  Auditions are at NICA tomorrow and Thursday, at Adelaide’s Cirkidz on Friday, in Brisbane on Monday, Sydney on Tuesday and Perth on Wednesday.

It also set me wondering what kind of person takes on a Bachelor degree in the circus.  The answers are fascinating.  There is, for example, the young Iranian-born man, Hossein Baghalan Aval, who formerly travelled the world as one half of an act called The Persian Brothers and who recently set a Guinness World Record for an act in which he

balances on top of [his partner] supported only by the tip of a dagger on a dagger below.

There is Adam Davis, a graduate of NICA who now performs for Cirque Du Soleil in Tokyo as a Chinese Poles artist.  Adam says of his unusual life,

Circus is alive. Accidents happen. Sometimes people sleep in and your six man act turns into a five man act… but of course one of the guys is still injured so you’ll be performing a four man act instead. For me this means that I’ll be doing … some of the other guys’ tricks as well as my own …my blood begins to tingle, it’s very exciting …

And then there’s Kyle Raftery, a “specialist in clown, unicycle and flying trapeze” who, since he graduated from NICA in 2005, has established himself as a “versatile multi-disciplinary artist, gifted at falling over for the amusement of others.”

Kyle’s story is one of those beauties in which a human being commits to an idea, an intuition, without the least thought of “how”.

I had very little circus experience or training, I grew up in rural NSW and always thought I’d become a musician.  Circus was … something I’d dreamed about doing so when I stumbled across the NICA website I decided to give it a go.  The night before the audition I was directing a school musical in a tiny town called Nundle.  I managed to get four hours sleep before driving six hours to Sydney to arrive at the audition with two minutes to spare.

Just the list of teaching disciplines that NICA offers is intriguing.  For example, there is:

  • Manipulation & Magic
  • Handstands & Tightwire
  • Verticals, Rope, Tissu, Swinging, Static, Dance and Double Trapeze
  • Russian Bar, Russian Swing, Adagio, Teeter Board
  • Cloudswing, Trapeze, Web & Death Wheel
  • Contortion, Foot Juggling & Acrobatics
  • and many more.

If you too are intrigued, NICA runs “Come and Try Days” several times a year, and there’s one this very Saturday, 2 October.  All sessions are 2 hours and cost $40.  Children’s (aged 7+) sessions are from 10am to 12, and teen and adult sessions from 12:30 to 2:30pm or 3:00 to 5:00pm.

For more information, contact NICA.


Images: From the NICA performance, Veritas, March 2010, photographed by David Wyatt of Capturing Images (second from top);  Hossein Baghalan Aval by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images AsiaPac, courtesy of Zimbio (second from bottom).

The egg and I

Reading of Posky’s brush with the eggmen, I fell to thinking of my own eggman incident …

About six years ago I went through a phase of attending life-drawing classes.  Life-drawing involves drawing a model who poses naked in front of the class.  Classes may be held in art schools, galleries or community halls.  Students set up their easels or their chairs around a dias on which the model sits or stands.  The classes are three to four hours in duration with a tea break in the middle, and the instructor will set various exercises throughout, usually starting with short 2-minute sketches and gradually increasing to more formal 40-minute drawings.

The world of the life class is an odd little cul-de-sac.  Everything is ancient and rustic – easels don’t work, chairs wobble, students use charcoal to draw lines and rolled-up bread to erase them.  And the bounteously-built woman rules.  For within minutes of starting, the rank beginner divines that drawing a big curvy woman is a thousand times more gratifying than drawing a thin woman, or any kind of man.  Women have more inherent interest to their bodies, and the more woman, the more interest.  The interest lies in the contrast of planes and the promise of movement, a certain dynamism, in each part.  A man’s body, by comparison, is more fixed and the torso generally must move as one or not at all.

Our favourite model at the Victorian College of the Arts was a woman called Nicola.  She was in her late 20s probably, neither pretty nor plain, with an effortlessly monumental quality to every gesture.  Over 6 foot tall, she had medium-sized breasts, a tiny high waist and a huge outswelling of hip and bottom, and it was impossible to make a bad drawing of her.  Her powerful, eloquent body would, as it were, do the drawing for you.  With just a hand, a flick of the ponytail, she made us all into Degas.


As well as the rusticity and inversion of female desirability, there is at times, it must be said, in the world of the life class, an air of imminent orgy.  Oh yes, everyone is on their best behaviour, very studiously acting as if staring at someone’s private parts for 10 minutes is something they do everyday.  But despite the unspoken truce people make at the door, sometimes the unnaturalness will out.

The funniest occasion was an evening class at Fitzroy.  The model was a woman in her 50s called Doris.  A grandmother, she was big and bountiful, especially around the middle, with a square-shaped head and auburn hair in two square wings.  Doris looked as if she’d just shucked off a load of care, and she posed in glorious equanimity on the stage for an hour or two.  At every mini-break a small man in a flat cap, a fellow student, circled the room trying to chat up every female student.  He came to my easel, introduced himself and gave me his card.  Now given the best behaviour code, this was unusual but innocuous.  So we were unprepared for the announcement of the proprietor after the main break.

Eyes dancing, lips smacking at foible and anticipation of tableau, the proprietor cleared his throat:

Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, I’ve had a request.  One of our students it seems is a professional model and he has offered his services as an impromptu model for this evening.  Does anyone have an objection to him joining Doris on the stage?

Rather belatedly, he asked Doris if she minded, to which she shrugged.  What else could she do?  And the rest of us goggled or looked at our shoes.  Taking our silence as assent next thing there was a rustling behind the easel and our fellow student, shorn of his clothes and flat cap, emerged eager into the light a small skinny man with a shiny pink egg of a head.  And with a flash of his rosy orb he leapt on to the stage, and after much fussing and sighing (on Doris’s part), took up a pose at her knee like an imperfectly restrained pet.  Poor Doris assumed her care again forthwith, and for the rest of the night, and to this day, I have in my mind’s eye a vision of the two of them posing: a grandmother and her unwelcome eggman.


Here’s Doris, whose name is actually Gladys I now see,  solo.

And here she is with eggman who doesn’t look very eggy.

And some more sketches of Nicola.



The novel in 11 days

The contrast between Nabokov and Georges Simenon as novelists is about as great as it can get, short of caricature.  Nabokov and Hemingway, for example, would be caricature.  Possibly, Hemingway and Hemingway is caricature.

Nabokov and Simenon, however, are still within coo-ee of each other, though their results and methods were very different, as was their congeniality as interview subjects.  In his interview with The Paris Review in 1967 Nabokov is the nightmare subject – arch, facetious, overweening — Simenon, on the other hand, is forthcoming and transparent.

Georges Simenon (1903-1989) is most famous for the Inspector Maigret detective novels, novels he churned out by the dozen.  What’s less well-known about Simenon — at least until the recent reawakening of interest led by the writer, John Banville, and the New York Review Books republication of some of his oeuvre — is that he also wrote many “serious” novels which are virtuoso lessons in that magical ingredient of any artwork: atmosphere.

What he says about atmosphere in The Paris Review interview is fascinating.  He reveals it is central to his very method.  What’s also fascinating is that he cheerfully volunteers exact details about this method, a method that resulted in 550 million copies of his work being in print today. (1)


At any time, Simenon says, he has two or three themes in his mind.  They’re not things that “might serve for a novel”, rather, “they are things about which I worry.”  Two days before the writing is to begin – intriguing, this precision – a couple of things happen.  First, he “finds” some atmosphere.

Today there is a little sunshine here. I might remember such-and-such a spring, maybe in some small Italian town, or some place in the French provinces or in Arizona … and then, little by little, a small world will come into my mind, with a few characters.

Second, he consciously takes up one of the “themes” that has been circulating in his mind, and then this theme or idea “will come and stick around [the characters]”:

They will have the same problem I have in my mind myself.  And the problem – with those people – will give me the novel.

Immediately after – “because as soon as I have the beginning I can’t bear it very long” – Simenon would take an envelope, a telephone book and a town map.  On the envelope he’d put the names of the characters, their ages, their families; the telephone book he’d mine for names; and with the map, he’d “see exactly where things happen.”  Then two days later, in every case, he’d begin writing.

Not only is he precise about the interval before starting, the whole production runs to a suicidal timetable.

After I have started a novel I write a chapter each day, without ever missing a day.  Because it is a strain, I have to keep pace with the novel.  If, for example, I am ill for forty-eight hours, I have to throw away the previous chapters.  And I never return to that novel.

At the end of 11 days – the limit of his endurance – he’d have his book.

This was the method by which Simenon created scores and scores of novels, both the Inspector Maigrets, and the serious novels, the two forms of writing he calls his “non-commercial” writing.  His “commercial writing”, a thing of the past by this stage in his life, were the “stories for magazines and things of that kind” that he wrote to earn his living in the beginning.

Simenon is particularly interesting when he distinguishes between the non-commercial and the commercial writing.  In fact, he makes the same distinction between the two I was groping towards in distinguishing between writing and blogging, and he makes it on similar grounds.

For him, commercial work – “I didn’t call it writing” – is that which is done “for such-and-such a public or for a certain kind of publication or for a particular collection.”  Commercial works can be very poor or very good, even wonderful,

but very seldom can they be works of art, because a work of art can’t be done for the purpose of pleasing a certain group of readers.

And when the interviewer asks in what way would this show up, Simenon answers pithily,

in the concessions.

The interviewer asks, “To the idea that life is orderly and sweet, for example?”

But Simenon is too toughminded for such pussyfooting.  He answers:

And the view of morals.  Maybe that is the most important.  You can’t write anything commercial without accepting some code.  There is always a code …

Funny how this business of writing always comes back to morality.  It was the very first question Nabokov was asked, and here it is again, raised this time by the interviewee.


Simenon was blessed in his interviewer, a man called Carvel Collins.  Unlike Nabokov’s all-too-evident Gold, Collins is not obsequious or obstrusive.  In fact, one of the most satisfying things about the interview is a non-question, a question that wasn’t asked: Mr Simenon: what drives your faintly pathological work rate?

In asking it, Collins would have received an answer trimmed to fit an answer-like space.  In not asking it, he elicits a stimulating picture of a man engaged on a grand and never-ending journey of problem-solving and “problem-finding”, as Richard Sennett, the sociologist, happily describes the general practice of craft.

It’s an image, this “craftsman” one, that Simenon would own with gladness:

I am an artisan; I need to work with my hands.  I would like to carve my novel in a piece of wood.  My characters – I would like to have them heavier, more three-dimensional.  And I would like to make a man so that everybody, looking at him, would find his own problems in this man.



1. Wikipedia

Images: Simenon, courtesy of Wikipedia (top)

People of the sock

Last year I started a community project called A Walk in the Park. The project was about having pedestrian crossings installed at six locations in my local neighbourhood to encourage people to give up some of their car trips and start walking.  The project was a great success: we got our local Council to sit up and take notice, we created a community of people committed to the neighbourhood, we contributed to the just-launched Pedestrian Strategy for Victoria and built all kinds of links between organisations, government and residents. Even today, 18 months after the key rally, I still get enquiries and encouragement from people interested in the project.

Now it’s time to start another community project and I’ve got a beauty in mind. It’s going to be called People of the Sock and it’s about bringing together sock knitters and people who are homeless (I dislike the term “homeless people”; people aren’t their housing situation). The project is to hold a sock knitting workshop and create 100 pairs of socks which are then distributed to the people who sleep near the Princes Bridge at Southbank.

The project is dedicated to my lady of the toadstool who gave me the clue, and to my father.

My lady of the toadstool told me she knits socks for Father Chris Riley in Sydney who distributes them to people who are homeless. They are particularly valued because socks (and scarves) are both warm and easily portable.  As my lady explained, when not wearing the socks, a person who is homeless can easily stuff them in their pocket for the day, unlike the gift of a blanket which the person has to carry around for the day or hide somewhere.


I have no idea how the project is going to happen, but it could look like the following …

The workshop is late November in a place like a public garden with a big video screen.  Hey, Federation Square just popped into my mind!  Perfect.

We invite everyone who wants to learn to knit socks, including people who are homeless.  They know about the event because we’ve had a story published in The Big Issue and The Age and we’ve been on radio talking about it.  We have 20 to 25 experienced sock knitters working the crowd of wannabe knitters, casting on for people, teaching them how to hold the 4 needles, easing them over those painful first few rows.  On the screen we have the most famous sock knitter in the world, Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, aka the Yarn Harlot, beamed in from her home in Canada.  She’s cracking jokes, talking about beer and sharing secrets.  From time to time, she shares the screen with the sock pattern beamed in from the depths of my knitting bag, and a supremely competent and entertaining compere ties the whole lot together.

All the sock yarn has been donated by Opal in Germany or Heirloom in Italy, and Knit Picks has donated all the double-pointed needles, size 2.75mm.

Now here’s the tricky bit which I can’t even envisage. Knitting socks takes time and it takes navigation of the heel.  We can teach people to start a sock and knit it for an hour or so, but at that point they won’t be up to the heel.  So how do we teach them to start a sock, knit a sock and turn a heel — a sequence that would take a day or two of normal, interrupted knitting — in one session?

Anyway, someone else will work that out.

A few weeks after the knitting workshop — say, mid December — we gather together again and distribute the socks to the people by the river. Just in time for Christmas.

The possibility of the project is spreading the joy of making.

What do you think, dear uncrazy readers?  Could it work?

PS. My toes don’t really look like that. They’re usually beautifully pedicured.  Yarn is Heirloom’s Jigsaw which knits up tight and smooth after a splitty start. 


A thunderous “stet!”

There’s a Korean saying about life: “Life is ten thousand joys, and ten thousand sorrows”.  If there were a saying about the internet it would be similar.  The internet is a squillion marvels, and a squillion disappointments.

One marvel is The Paris Review’s interviews of famous writers going back to the 1950s.

There’s great material here.  What the subjects give away and what they withhold, the competence and incompetence of the interviewers – see the cringe-making introduction written by Graham Greene’s interviewers; Greene, eternally sardonic, the man with a “chip of ice in his heart”, must have been laughing up his sleeve – and the sport there is to be had in comparing subjects.

One such sportive event is to read side by side the interviews of my naughty, Vladimir Nabokov, and Georges Simenon, two authors on opposite ends of the spectrum of baroqueness; Nabokov with his tropical phantasmagorias, Simenon, who for every day spent writing, spent two cutting “adjectives, adverbs and every word which is there just to make an effect.”


The Nabokov interview in The Paris Review is famous for his exhilarating diatribe on the concept of poshlost which Wikipedia translates as “self-satisfied inferiority”.  The diatribe is amusing and characteristic of the chief Nabokov traits: rapture, drollery, elaboration upon elaboration, cattiness.

It’s worth reading the whole interview, primarily because Nabokov acquits himself so poorly.  Which is exactly as he would have wanted.  “As an interview subject, Mr Gold, you’ll see I make a very good writer”, he seems to be saying to the unfortunate Herbert Gold, dead meat surely from the moment he asks about Nabokov’s “sense of the immorality of the relationship between Humbert Humbert and Lolita”.

I can hear Nabokov’s “Dunderhead!” from here, 43 years in the future. “What an idiot is this Gold!”

I’m a loving reader, not a scholar or even a would-be conscientious interviewer, but I know Nabokov doesn’t care a fig about morality.  Nabokov is not concerned with morality and I know this not because Lolita is the story, amongst other things, of a paedophile, but because morality is always a matter of bad taste and Nabokov is the connoisseur of taste, a “tutor in exquisiteness”, as James Wood calls him. And what is poshlost if not the ceding of taste?

In the event, Nabokov’s response to Gold’s inane question is remarkably mild, the only time he’s mild in the entire interview.  Again, it’s as if he’s saying to Gold, “there’s no way you’re ever going to get a handle on me … you can ask something as stupid, as poshlost-y as that, and I’m not going to bite.”

He seems intent on making Gold another “galley slave”:

Interviewer: E M Forster speaks of his major characters sometimes taking over and dictating the course of his novels.  Has this ever been a problem for you, or are you in complete command?

Nabokov: My knowledge of Mr Forster’s works is limited to one novel, which I dislike; and anyway, it is not he who fathered that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills, although … one sympathises with his people if they try to wiggle out of that trip to India … My characters are galley slaves.

He is just as caustic, naturally, on the subjects of critics and editors.

The purpose of a critique is to say something about a book the critic has or has not read.  Criticism can be instructive in the sense that it gives readers, including the author of the book, some information about the critic’s intelligence, or honesty, or both.

On the subject of editors, the reader can hear him winding up a notch in extravagance as if he’s become bored with pedestrian insults:

Among these [“proofreaders”] I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honour … But I have come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous “stet!”

No, on the whole, despite his hamfistedness, I pity Mr Gold.  From the very first click of the heels – “Interviewer: Good morning. Let me ask forty-odd questions. Nabokov: Good morning. I am ready” – Nabokov is the nightmare subject. Petulant, phoney, and like his chess player protagonists, unremittingly calculating and defensive.

Only once does Gold come close to penetrating the veneer:

Interviewer: Do you feel you have any conspicuous or secret flaw as a writer?

It’s a good question finally – that “secret flaw” hooks — and Nabokov knows it because it’s the only time he approaches seriousness:

Nabokov: The absence of a natural vocabulary … Of the two instruments in my possession, one – my native tongue – I can no longer use … My English, this second instrument I have always had, is however a stiffish, artificial thing, which may be all right for describing a sunset or an insect, but which cannot conceal poverty of syntax and paucity of domestic diction when I need the shortest road between warehouse and shop …

The shortest road?  And all this time I thought he was aiming for the scenic route!



1. Wikipedia

Images: Scott Hansen at ISO50


It’s become a cliché that for every adversity there must be an equal and opposite upside, a flipside. It’s what we have left of Newton.

I was even sucked into buying a book called The Flipside at the airport a few weeks ago; one of those you pick up, read a paragraph at random and think, “geez, I really have to find out more”, only to part with your cash and repent at leisure in economy as you discover the book consists of nothing more than this same paragraph repeated over and over, with every third word changed.

Yet how one knows it’s a cliché is not its ubiquity so much as the surprise it causes when it’s borne out.


I was stunned at some of the things that happened during the period leading up to my father’s recent death and its aftermath.  Things I could never have predicted; things which had never moved that were now moving.

One of these things was the gift of my cousin, Ken, a man whom I hadn’t seen since I was a small child, who came to the funeral bearing a sheaf of documents about my father’s family history.

Now, my father was a born storyteller, and a good one, but he never talked about his family history, mostly I assume because he didn’t know much about it.  In fact, until I saw the documents Ken had gathered I wasn’t even clear about my paternal grandparents’ names, both having died before I was born. So what Ken gave us that day was truly magical. He gave us, my siblings and me, a whole new world.


One of the documents in the sheaf of documents is heartbreaking. It’s the bankruptcy motion filed by my great-grandfather, Francis, at the height of the Depression in 1897 in The Supreme Court of NSW in the “colony of Sydney”.  The motion is written in my great-grandfather’s hand and is dated September 7, 1897, exactly 113 years and 1 day ago.  In it, he duly swears his assets at £3 and his liabilities at £46, and makes the following declaration:

I have never been bankrupt before.  My bankruptcy was caused by want of work and sickness in family.  I had a small slaughter yard at Glebe Island and had to sell my horse and cart and the [illegible word] for £35 in the beginning of the year. I work for Creasey [illegible words] at 50 shillings a week.  I have to support a family of 6. I have pledged no property during the last 5 years. I was 8 months out of work in 96.

The last phrase moves me to tears.

Another of the documents is an utter revelation. Dad was a storyteller as I say and one of the stories or myths he used to tell concerned a large fortune that was waiting unclaimed in America, courtesy of some mysterious ancestors who had lived there. In my teenage years I used to put this story together with the fact of our obviously Irish surname and fantasize a poor benighted family fleeing to America from the Irish potato famine. The famine, also known as the “Great Hunger”, was the period between 1845 and 1852 marked by “mass starvation, disease and emigration”, during which

Ireland’s population fell by between 20 and 25 percent. (1)

Then I saw one of the birth certificates Ken had found.  It’s the birth certificate of the same Francis, he of the bankruptcy, my great-grandfather, born on October 21, 1860.  There on the document is shown the birthplace of his father Michael — Dundalk, Ireland — the birthplace of his mother Rose — County Tyrone, Ireland — and the date and place of their marriage — 1850, New York, America.

So there it was, all on one single piece of paper. Ireland, the ominous date, the wedding in New York, no less.  And all this time I had thought I was embroidering on a myth, a lovely myth from Dad’s imagination.



1. Wikipedia

Images: graph, courtesy of Wikipedia

The writer’s necessary (2)

One of the things it takes to be a writer is courage.  Another is a whip and a shrug; the whip for getting the lions of ambiguity – seven of them, according to William Empson’s famous taxonomy – up on their stools; the shrug for when it doesn’t go according to plan.

To raise another creature’s name for a minute, one far more feared and entirely loathsome, it was Jacques Derrida who saw the need for the shrug.  Fitting for a Frenchman.

Derrida believed no matter how assiduously the writer cracked her whip to control the lions of ambiguity, there would always be one looking in the wrong direction or snarling when it should be sleeping.  The writer may do everything possible to control the text and screw down meaning, but something will always escape.  Some remnant, some “supplement” as he called it, would get away from the writer, and Derrida spent his career sniffing out these signs in the margins of a text, an occupation which became known as deconstruction, or more kindly, close reading.

Take a tiny example from this blog.

Check out the post about the little girl, Benazir, who died in the Pakistan floods.  The photograph accompanying the post shows a man in the raging waters, his arm raised to call for help.  Then look at the very next post about an entirely unrelated subject – courage in writing – and you can see I unconsciously chose a photograph from Rossellini’s film, Rome, Open City which again features a person raising their arm to call for help.  It’s only now looking back I can see that one post leaked into the next.  This leakage is exactly what Derrida had in mind, and demonstrates how it is that a writer is never wholly in charge of her material.

The 7 types of ambiguity

William Empson (1906-1984), a literary critic and poet, defined ambiguity as occurring when “alternative views might be taken without sheer misreading”.

He identified seven types of ambiguity:

  1. The first type of ambiguity is the metaphor, that is, when two things are said to be alike which have different properties. This concept is similar to that of metaphysical conceit.
  2. Two or more meanings are resolved into one. Empson characterizes this as using two different metaphors at once.
  3. Two ideas that are connected through context can be given in one word simultaneously.
  4. Two or more meanings that do not agree but combine to make clear a complicated state of mind in the author.
  5. When the author discovers his idea in the act of writing. Empson describes a simile that lies halfway between two statements made by the author.
  6. When a statement says nothing and the readers are forced to invent a statement of their own, most likely in conflict with that of the author.
  7. Two words that within context are opposites that expose a fundamental division in the author’s mind. (1)

Empson’s taxonomy was designed originally for poetry, and looking at it now you may see some holes or disagree with some groupings.  But the interesting thing about it is how he makes explicit the writer’s imperfect control, particularly in types 4, 5, 6 and 7.

Number 5 is also interesting.  It’s the one at play in the situation I’ve referred to, with the help of W G Sebald, as “getting hold of the wrong thread.”  If the writer writes to discover what she thinks about a situation, then it’s her task to try to stay ahead of the curve, not following along in its wake.  Or be truly masterful and severe in the re-writing.

Numbers 2, 3 and 4 all pose a constant question to the writer.  As the writer writes, at each step of the way, there is a decision — do I make each meaning explicit (at least, each meaning I identify), or do I leave them conjoined?  Do I hunt down and (try to) kill every ambiguity, or do I leave it to the reader to assimilate it?  Each step, each word, calls on the writer to make a decision about ambiguity, about the amount of “work” the reader is called on to do.

The boring and the baroque

Perhaps you think there’s no question.  Perhaps you think “death to ambiguity” and all who ride in her.  Yet consider just two of the possible end points of such a view.  One is boredom, as noted by Voltaire:

The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.

Another is the baroque, the style of writing which “deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) its own possibilities”, as defined by Borges.  Borges may have been happy to make a point of the baroque, but it’s an acquired taste, and becoming more so with each passing day.

What it takes to be a writer is to be at home in ambiguity:  to identify it when you can, to let it be when it’s called for, to minimise it when that’s called for.  And to understand above all that some meaning will always escape, and that a shrug, the more Gallic the better, comes in handy.



1. Empson’s 7 types from Wikipedia

Images: Jacques Derrida smouldering beautifully, courtesy of Just Rhetoric (top); William Empson, courtesy of The University of Sheffield (bottom)