The power of words has always been known. That’s where spells and curses come from. In olden times, ordinary people would be wary of what they said because they believed their words had power. You didn't have to be a priest or an oracle or wizard to cast spells with words; anyone could potentially make something happen just by saying so. If that’s the spoken word just imagine how much more powerful the written word could be. There are words floating around right now that were written six thousand years ago and they’re still affecting people to this day.
In the past people talked about writers having their heads in the clouds. In science fiction parlance they’d probably say they’re out of phase with the rest of us. There’s a scene in Paul Auster’s Oracle Night where the protagonist, a writer called Sidney Orr, looks in the window of a stationers and sees “towers of ballpoints, pencils and rulers arranged to suggest the New York skyline”. It’s a simple and effective visual image: writers don’t look at the world and see it crumble into letters (the visual I have in my head right now is from The Matrix) but we might as well: reality, memory and imagination all tend to bleed together after a bit especially when we’re in the middle of a big project and sometimes it feels like effects arrive before their associated causes.
Words, in a big or a small way, can and often do affect the future, yes, but they definitely provide a window on the past. Windows, of course, have edges and a limited field of vision and the same’s true of any biography or memoir; it’s selective and has the potential to distort. We as writers just love words—love ’em to bits—but love isn’t nearly as blind as people reckon it is. True love sees. True love accepts the limitations and the risks. True love makes do.
Here’s a poem about the past that I hope will affect your future:
My mother made do almost every day of her life.
There wasn't that much to the dish. To tell you the truth,
Mum could make do
with almost nothing at all.
She'd put on the pot and just let it simmer for hours.
And all of my life so far I've tried to do the same
but I find mine
always leaves a bitter taste.
I wish I knew what her secret ingredient was.
Friday, 18 July 2003