Note: The following piece was commissioned by Writers’ Centre Norwich. Each year, WCN gathers up to forty writers and translators from around the globe in Norwich for the Worlds festival. Writers talk to each other about the art and craft of writing, spend time in each other’s company and join readers at public events. In 2011, Worlds focused on the notion of ‘Influence’, with commissioned provocations from Alfred Birnbaum, Maureen Freely, Natsuki Ikezawa, Gwyneth Lewis, Joyelle McSweeney, Christopher Merrill and CK Williams. A number of writers were commissioned to produce a literary response of their choice to the four day gathering.
It is always comforting to hold hands in the dark. A terror shared is a terror halved. Writing can be a terrifying process, but only, perhaps, for those who foolishly choose to call themselves writers (someone fool enough, that is, to pick a vocation which terrifies them. Would you become a stuntman if you were afraid of heights?). So it is that to spend time in the company of writers is to find some brief respite from the lonely terror of writing. This is what I felt at Worlds 2011, in conversation with my fellow writers. Until I got talking to J. There are some writers who offer no comfort, who terrify you further. Those are the kind you want to seek out. Writers like J.
We were talking about process. I asked about hers. She told me the way her short stories came to her was similar to Cortazar’s description of his own writing process, as described in an interview with The Paris Review. I raised an eyebrow. Yes, my fellow writer continued, the man had no process. Over the course of his career, Cortazar said, when it came to writing his short stories, the one thing that had never changed and never would, was ‘the total anarchy and the disorder.’ The stories fell on him like rain, it seemed. And sometimes, the rain just stopped. My friend and I both shuddered. And then we both thought, The Total Anarchy and the Disorder. What a title. We set ourselves the challenge of each writing a story for it. Here is mine.
This is how I wrote it. First, I considered the title. The Total Anarchy and The Disorder. Yes, isn’t this just how it can feel, when the writing comes? So what is one’s strategy for coping with this? For managing it? And doesn’t this resonate with the more general difficulties of being alive? Our struggles with the, yes, total anarchy of life, and, let us not forget, its disorder? And I remembered someone I used to know, someone who was unable to walk down the street without avoiding any cracks or lines on the pavement, but it was always more complicated than that, there was some arcane system of rules governing his progress, so that he moved from one end of the street to another like a knight on a chessboard, and he could never quite explain or somehow was afraid to, and I thought, he or someone like him might make a good subject for this story, for as long as he observed this system, the total anarchy and the disorder was what he was avoiding with each correct step, and what he risked with each mis-step. So I thought my story might take the form of a series of something like chess notations, describing this man’s daily journey from home to his office and the job he hates but is afraid to leave, with an ellipses indicating where he boarded the bus, like so … But then again, I think maybe not. Such a story would be very dull to read and would be—given the title—ultimately, disappointing.