I want to spend the rest of my time here explaining what I mean, and why actually it’s not so hard to close the circle between the seemingly contradictory wishes of my opening paragraph.
My creative life has been shaped by slap-in-the-face moments. Most of them from the art rather than the literary world, which I think is one reason why I keep pleading for literature to be more like art. The journey began when I was about 12 years old, at a room in the Tate, sitting surrounded by four walls of Rothko’s crimson and black windows. It was like I had everything my imagination had been keeping secret from me suddenly scraped out and played on a series of screens, a quite dizzying sense of freedom. But what struck me most was that a few seemingly simple paintings could have done that.
That was in the early 1980s. It planted the seeds that made me know I wanted to do something creative, wanted to produce something that would have someone one day experience what I’d experienced in that room of Rothkos. But it was the 1990s before a book, a film, and an exhibition started the process that would crystallise my creative vision. As a student in the late 80s and early 90s it will come as no surprise what the first of those books was. Everyone I knew was obsessed by Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and I was no different. Looking back, having read everything he ever wrote, I think I can safely say it’s just about his weakest work, but it had an instant and mindblowing impact.
This was an author who spoke the unspeakable, on page one – look, he said, let’s not beat about the bush, this isn’t real. I’m an author and these characters are my invention. They don’t exist. I created them on little more than a whim. And, with that out of the way, he proceeded to take those characters and draw you so far in that he knocked every last fibre of the emotional stuffing from you. It’s a sleight of hand of bravura technical virtuosity and one I’ve been trying to replicate ever since – let the reader in on the artifice straightaway, and then you can forget about suspending disbelief (the most ridiculous deceit of all, one that is universally acclaimed, one for which I have absolutely no time at all – why why why deceive the reader – let them in on the secret, and then the emotions will truly flow) and get on with what matters, with conveying the heartbreaking truth at the centre of your story. It took me 20 years to come close, when I finally had the confidence to write Evie and Guy, a novel that consists of nothing but numbers, that pulls the curtain down on page one and gets down to the business of breaking your heart.
The Double Life of Veronique, Krzystof Kieslowski’s film immediately preceding his stunning Three Colours trilogy, is a film that uses cinematography and nuance, exquisite musical scoring and angles to tell its story rather than action or narrative. A reflection, a slanted angle, the length of a close up on the protagonist’s face – this is a compelling, heartbreaking story that is told entirely indirectly, by implication. Through the director’s skill in layering images, the reader does all the work in piecing the narrative together. The result is that our emotional engagement is ratcheted up to the limit.
Almost everyone who was around at the time had an opinion about the 1999 Turner Prize exhibition. Not many of those actually went, but I was one of them. The exhibition featured not one but two remarkable installations – the winner, Deadpan by Steve McQueen, and Tracey Emin’s notorious My Bed. Deadpan consists of an endless loop of a short piece of footage in which a house collapses around the artist, mimicking a famous sequence of Buster Keaton’s. The endless repetition has the same effect as saying a word out loud again and again and again – it renders what you are seeing/hearing utterly meaningless. But then, if you carry on watching, something remarkable happens. You begin to enter a trance-like state, and the looped image because a vast blank screen onto which you start to project your own meaning. The seemingly simplest piece of art was able completely to disconnect form and content, signifier and signified, picture and meaning. The possibilities that opened were mesmeric, and it’s something I’ve explored several times in my experimental poetry.
My Bed is one of those pieces of art that got the general public up in arms – how dare she claim this is art! My 5 year old could do better! Disgusting! Being there was actually one of the most intimate, moving experiences I can remember. It was almost impossible to look – it was like Emin had peeled the skin from her chest and laid her exposed heart out for all to see – she was both artist and object, and that mix was deeply uncomfortable, and yet the vulnerability and intimacy formed a connection with the audience that nothing on a larger, more idealistic scale could match.
And that is where the circle is closed. Because it is when an artist or an author reaches deep inside themselves and hollows out their darkest, most personal corners for the audience – when people truly speak in their own voice – that we most fully connect, that art has the power to slap you in the face and change your world.
So there we have it. The shaping of my creative life. Yes, these experiences have influenced everything I write. But more important for now, they explain what moves me most when I read – so as I gear up to judge this summer’s Vine Leaves competition, I figured it might make interesting reading for all sorts of reasons.
Are you going to enter the Vine Leaves Vignette Collection Award? Are you going to slap me in the face?
He runs 79 rat press, which has just launched 6 collections, a catalogue and a series of events under the title NOTHING TO SAY (http://79ratpress.wordpress.com). Dan also writes for The Guardian.