Finding the words to say it

The hardest part about writing is making a start. Get the first paragraph right and what follows is likely to be okay. For me, it has something to do with the rhythm of speech, a matter of the sentences sounding right. I did not realize it straight away, but this quality is also an indicator of ballast. Sentences that do not sound right are not right.

But finding the words to say it is notoriously difficult, which is why beginning writers are tempted to start with a quote, that is, someone else’s words. I have done it many times. It confers a kind of authority by association. The problem is that editors, or at least the ones I worked for, tended not to like it. I think they saw it as derivative, but when you are unsure, as I was, using someone else’s words seemed a safe way to go.

‘They’ must know what they’re talking about: that was the thought. But do they? Many years later, I wonder whether any of us really knows what our words say. Writers often don’t and neither do patients on the couch. Could it be that we speak to find out what we mean, not the other way round?

Freud certainly thought so, so did his French interpreter, Jacques Lacan. For Lacan, what we really mean comes from the unconscious, which he thought of as a series of quotes, essentially from someone else. He describes this as the discourse of the Other.

I had never heard of Lacan when I started writing, but I think he is onto something, and I think it applies not just to psychoanalysis but also to art. Both depend on the portmanteau quality of language. It is the endless slippage of meaning in speech that makes recovery possible in psychotherapy and revelation achievable in literature and painting. Why? Because slippery words are how the unconscious emerges, as Freud discovered, notably in dreams, jokes and slips of the tongue. In therapy we get better by hearing the unconscious speak through us, while in art it is a question of metaphor working through language – on the page and on the canvas – to unveil hidden verities.

The point where these two – psychoanalysis and art – best converge is poetry. Freud acknowledged as much when he said, and here we go with a quote: “Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there ahead of me.” What he meant, it seems to me, is that poetry, because it operates through metaphor and metonymy, can resemble a language of the unconscious, and is therefore a pointer, if not a precursor, to psychoanalysis.

But how does this work with art? Well, the unconscious is the source of a great deal of art, as I discovered when I interviewed ‘Catch 22’ author, Joseph Heller, and he told me that the first page of his book had come from a dream. He did not question this source, nor did E. M. Forster, author of “A Passage to India’, when he defined fiction writing as throwing a bucket down into the unconscious to see what comes up.

Both these forms of words – the inspiration of the writer and the free-association of the patient – represent a way out of the prison we call personality. It is in the shock value of what may emerge that the possibility of an “ah-ha” moment resides. This is when the software of the self is revealed to be not so much genes as forgotten phrases.

These phrases are rooted in what we have heard and conjured up as small children. They are the hymn-sheets from which we unconsciously sing. And to get free of them, we need to change how we read the notation. That is, in a way, the dividing line for mental health. As Shakespeare makes clear in Hamlet, sanity and madness are both ways to be pregnant with words. What we say determines, despite the biology-babble of the depression debate, whether we are mentally disturbed or not.

So language is crucial. To “speak well”, as Lacan advised, is better than being well. He was not the first with the idea. Millennia before, Confucius counselled, “one must not tolerate words not being in order. That is what matters.” Obviously, the language that counts here is not that concocted in boardrooms or political harangues. That is phoney speech, though it is interesting how often such posturing betrays itself. We have all done it in daily life. A more famous example occurred in the 1970’s when Liberal leader, Billy Snedden, noted, “everywhere I go people know something is wrong”.

Politicians now have spin-doctors whose job it is to say nothing by using empty speech. This sloganeering – with lifestyles rather than lives and mission statements rather than ethics – is specifically designed to avoid being surprised by language.

Which is a shame because surprise is precisely what artists and analysts are looking for. They know, or sense, it is an antidote to boredom, and a means of discovery.

Before and after Freud thinkers have realized this. The American poet, Emerson and German philosopher, Heidegger, are two who saw the words that most surprise – that is, poetry – as the truest form of language. For them most language is merely defective poetry. Heidegger believed that the nature of poetry is the founding of truth, arguing that it was only by talking and writing that we understand what something is and what it means. Writing about the time Heidegger died in 1976, author Susan Sontag echoed the sentiment, saying that truth only exists when it is told. For her truth is something that is told not known. If there were no speaking and writing there would be no truth.

Writing according to this formula – as with Lacan’s speaking well – helps prevent the flaw of having one truth for conversation and another for life. It is, in effect, a way, maybe the way, to be truly informed. It was not the way I started writing, but it was what I wanted to do. Working in the media, however, is not automatically conducive to discovery, given that much of it is an echo chamber designed to assure not surprise.

To retrieve Hemingway’s dictum – write the truest sentence you know – involves giving up knowing things, including the quotes of others. It meant listening to words that are muffled, or not yet born. It is uncanny how often these words have the feel of poetry or at least the rhythm that I long ago realised was how a sentence sounds right.