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Hilltop: A Literary Paper. Volume 1 Number 2

Why Writers Stop Writing

page 26

Why Writers Stop Writing

An adaptation and synopsis of a talk given to the Literary Society of Victoria University College, 27th May, 1949.

Fatigue is inevitable in all kinds of work, brain or manual. The man with a hobby (in these days writing can only be a hobby) chooses one which he can work at in the half-drugged condition that comes pleasantly after the eight-hour day spent at his paid job. For the wharfie, tinkering at a radio; for the radio mechanic, manuring a rose bed. But the writer of prose or poetry requires a keen edge to his thought. Indeed, for him his writing often seems his main job, though unpaid, and he grudges the time and effort spent at other work. In their late teens and early twenties many young writers solve their problems by living off their parents and ostensibly preparing for a career in law, school teaching or the ministry. This is the golden age. But in time social and economic pressure forces them to the wall. They train in earnest for a profession; or more likely, led by a false belief that words of any kind are better than no words, they fall into the dismal swamp of journalism or radio advertising—dismal, that is, for men in love with words or ideas. Writing is done half-guiltily in moments snatched on a Sunday morning or riding in a tram. The faculty withers with disuse. But, as some critic whose name I can't remember writes apropos of Coleridge—"Those whom the Muse has once visited are haunted for the rest of their lives." Even if the vitality of their creative impulse is so great that it can weather a long winter of neglect, the periods of incubation necessary for sustained and organic themes cannot be afforded.

In previous centuries the patronage system or private income gave writers the leisure they required. Today the State is a possible patron, but it may well demand too great a levy of "protection money" in the form of propaganda, and so destroy those writers it is sheltering. Private incomes are few and far between. Some prose writers may find a market for novels as they wish to write them; but there is no market for poetry.

Of New Zealand poets, Glover is running a printing press, Fairburn does hack work for broadcasting, Curnow is a journalist, Mason has been doing secretarial work for a union. They have all many times complained of the impossibility of finding time or energy for their true job—writing. Of novelists, Sargeson is on a sick pension, and so has time to write but insufficient energy; Davin, I believe, is in a Government job. There is no way out of the dilemma, in this country at least.

There is, I think, a deeper cause of sterility When we read the greatest novelists or dramatists, we are impressed by the extraordinary sense of actuality in their work. It is life, only larger. In composition a writer's struggle, above and beyond his technical problems, is to rouse himself from that sleep which he normally calls waking, and see motives, moods and situations, with a naked intensity. In this, his philosophy, that is to say his world-view expressed or implied, conscious or unconscious, will either help or binder. I believe, in opposition to relativists, that there are true and false world-views. In Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Dostoevski, we find the same naked glare of insight, accompanied always by an awareness of moral conflict.

But awareness of moral conflict is not over-popular with us. From every hoarding the gigantic moronic faces stare at us, over their Kruschen Salts or electoral slogan, telling us that a little more money, a little more "love," an iron tonic, the right name marked on the voting paper—and the line will be clear at last, put on steam for Para-dise-on-Earth. In the gaps between the hoardings children still find jungles, and grown-ups disturbing memories or jagged guilt; but the gaps are closing. We are in danger of forgetting what we mean to ourselves.

Louis MacNeice's Brother Fire clears the air a little.

"... Thus were we weaned to knowledge of the Will
page 27 That wills the natural world but wills us dead.
O delicate walker, babbler, dialectician Fire,
O enemy and image of ourselves—
Did we not on those mornings after the All Clear,
When you were looting shops in elemental joy
And singing as you swarmed up city block and spire,
Echo your thought in ours— "Destroy! Destroy! Destroy"'

The "advertising view" of human nature, though popular with politicians, is not so with writers—I exclude the sludge of third rate novels, digests, and films. But in revolt writers have developed their own falsification. It begins with Rousseau's Noble savage, and ends with Hemingway's Dumb Oxen. "If we cannot find a resolution of grief, anxiety, and profound malaise in a Brave New World, we will go back to our own roots. The child and the Eskimo, even the gangsters fighting in an urban jungle—these have lost their conflict, not by reasoning, but by a return to unconscious harmony." The psychoanalysts seem to point this way. They also point to a purely determinist pattern of society.

Among New Zealand writers, Fairburn, Glover, Davin and Sargeson present in their different ways the same picture. Fairburn more successfully in his love poetry (love poems have to be a little sentimental); Glover with a stoic tinge, drawing on the Greek epigrammatists, and gaining at times a nihilist intensity. Davin and Sargeson both chow Natural Man, but Davin's view is a coldly determinist one, while Sargeson's leaves room for compassion.

The sterility of the philosophy of Natural Man becomes clearer as a writer grows older, losing the sanguine view of his youth. It is highly individualistic drawing meaning from the mood of the moment; and in the long run it presents a meaningless picture.

Charles Brasch and Curnow both look for a new philosophy—Brasch (like Holcroft, but more succinctly) in the timeless and symbolic events of nature; Curnow in a history where Time personified replaces God. Though influenced by Yeats to a view of Natural Man, Curnow has kept a good deal of Christian dogma and an acceptance of moral conflict.

"Or out of God the separated streams Down honeyed valleys, Minoan, Egyptian, Or latterly Polynesia like ocean rains Flowing became one flood, one swift corruption."

Last but not least, R. A. K. Mason implies in his verse a determinist philosophy. But with him, as with Housman and Thomas Hardy, God is to blame. Our virtues are the Roman ones—fortitude and justice. He is much fascinated by the figure of Christ, presenting him as hard-done-by man or impotent God, yet still regarding him as an image of compassion.

The one quality which all the New Zealand writers I have mentioned have in common is pessimism. I regard this not as morbid, but as an accurate reading of the spiritual temperature of the times. Their writing has dwindled or ceased, partly from fatigue and lack of time, but mainly from their inabilty to find meaning in a world either dead or disastrous. They required a philosophy which allowed for free will, took on the whole a kindly view of human behaviour (sensual failings in particular), yet recognised irremediable moral conflict. I would indicate an unpopular choice—orthodox Christianity.