Mahler in the Morning: the Street at Night
Blog number 19: 24 September 2009
I have changed my work patterns. I leave home and travel to the west coast by bus every fortnight to the small sea side community of Raglan. Laptop, frugal food supplies, minimal clothes, and no access to the Internet.
My experiment of leaving town for four days has, so far, proved to be successful. To walk near the sea each day is bliss. To have nothing to do all day but read and write, to leave, even for a short time the broadband and the phone and the routine world that I have constructed around myself and the house that I share with my partner Mike is a treasured freedom, not from the external world, but from that wretched internalised dialogue of what I like to call the Fifties Housewife Syndrome.
I thought I had finally killed this Monster, but although it is but a mere wisp of a girl compared with the original model, it lies in wait for me and rears her ugly head when I am least expecting it. Virginia Woolf called this creature the Angel in the House but she became so ‘bothered’ and ‘tormented’ by her that she metaphorically killed her off.
Two unexpected consequences have occurred. On my return, I revel in the comfort and the familiarity of my home. This lasts for about four days, then the craving to be close to the sea and to experience once again the bliss of solitude begins to rise up within me.
The other unexpected joy is that the small stylish guest house that I have discovered is seldom booked out at this time of the year. I have the run of the kitchen and the sitting room largely to myself. However, on the odd occasion that there has been someone else staying here, they have proved to be very interesting.
Last week a young student musician from Japan came to stay at the guesthouse. He plays the classical guitar and wants to become a composer. He played to me for over an hour, and it was wonderful.
We discussed the differences between creating fiction and creating music. He said that he found difficulty in reading English literature. I suggested that he use ‘talking books’. He said this would be impossible as the voice of the reader would provide a very different picture that he had in his head of how a character would ‘sound’.
I was fascinated with this idea and hope to be able to incorporate it into my current writing project. He asked me if I listened to music when I wrote. I said of course. I have to play music with my headphones on as I live on a busy street with the University at one end, a high school opposite, and a Mormon church at the other end. The music cocoons me into my own world.
He asked what I listen to. I said it changes but I get obsessed with a composer and play all the cds I can get hold of. For the past two weeks for example, I played nothing but Shostakovich. The symphonies are riveting.
He was clearly astonished. He shook his head. How can anyone write and listen to Shostakovich at the same time? Can’t be done!
I thought about this conversation well into the night. Writers are often asked where their inspiration comes from. I usually say that I have no idea. But after speaking with the student, I have realised that the music I listen to when I write is almost never opera or lieder or oratorio. It is usually chamber music or orchestral works or anything else that does not feature the human voice. If words become involved with the work, I listen in a different way and stop tapping on the keyboard.
Last week, I played the Mahler symphonies from one to nine. He uses the human voice a lot in his symphonies but somehow they did not disturb my concentration. I believe that this is because the singers are blended into the work as if they were playing instruments.
I write in the morning and early afternoon. By the time night falls, I cannot cope with language anymore; not writing it, talking it, or reading it. My consolation is watching TV. I love to watch predictable narratives written by someone else that does not require the slightest input from me. My favourite programmes are ‘who dunnits’ (silly but stylish ones like the Agatha Christie’s stories), and soap operas like Coronation Street.
I find Coronation Street very amusing. Stuck down here at the bottom of the world, it is refreshing to hear characters declare such mysterious lines of dialogue as ‘I would as heck as like’ and the even more mysterious ‘I’m not so green as cabbage looking…’
This coming week I plan to play the symphonies of Mahler right through one more time to get them ‘into my head.’ And on Tuesdays and Thursdays, 7-30 New Zealand time, I’ll be in front of my TV set to watch two more hours of the Street.
From Mahler to the Street, is, I believe a good example of how a fiction writer’s mind works in the manner of a hunter and gatherer, taking inspiration from a myriad of unlikely sources be it music or colourful dialogue from an unfamiliar culture.