Rachel Cusk’s foreword to the 2020 Prose Fiction MA anthology, published by Egg Box
It may be that this period – the spring and early summer of 2020 – is looked back on as anomalous or is half-forgotten, but it is nonetheless the case that for the past two months the confinement and isolation that are the private conditions of creativity have been curiously expanded to make a shared public reality. We are living for now in a society-wide simulation of the writer’s life. Those people for whom this represents normality may have had cause to reflect, therefore, on what they do, since their terrain has been made, as it were, open to the public. Whatever else the crisis has done, it has exposed the creative space – or moment, or opportunity – in the lives of large numbers of people for whom that space is generally unavailable or concealed.
One response to that exposure has doubtless been to recoil from it, finding the suspension of normal life unacceptable. The idea that that social reality is not invincible is deeply disillusioning for those who rely on and believe in the values of the real. What the withdrawal of this reality can seem to have exposed is simply a blank. I have seen and heard numerous writers and artists say that they themselves have been unable to create under these conditions, as though the seclusion in which they customarily perform their activities needs to run counter to, or constitute their own withdrawal from, normal life. The choice to be alone is an exercise of freedom; the obligation to be is not. There is often a note of shame, even of anger, in these admissions. Given uninterrupted time and space, the creative artist ‘ought’ to be able to create. The selfsame need that drove him or her to seek the public identity of artist has now brought about a kind of exposé of something that perhaps feels, at bottom, fraudulent.
But many non-artists might indeed find in social isolation an opportunity for a reunion with a long-lost part of themselves; this could be an additional cause of irritation for people who have dared to stake a great deal on retaining that part and giving it utterance in daily life. Yet in that same sense, there has been a chance in these weeks for the writer or artist to revisit the site of their own original impulse to create, and to examine when and where – if indeed they do exist – these feelings of fraudulence came into being. In the early days of a writer’s career, it might seem that the impulse is almost entirely internalised, to the point of being half-unconscious. It springs from a need, not from a blank; or rather, it is continuous with rather than blocked off from the self. The activity of writing seems and is both legitimate and illegitimate in equal parts, legitimate in its internal reality, inadmissible or invisible as a public act. Publication legitimises the whole thing: one is entitled to be – and call oneself – a writer. Yet the suspicion later on that in the course of that exposure the internal reality was bruised or neglected is easily entertained, and can keep growing. The very thing that had once seemed irreducibly authentic, to have been the only entirely necessary part of the process, can sometimes feel relegated to a corner, to be glanced at occasionally with guilt. The questions – do I write simply to get published? would I still write if I weren’t paid to do it, or if I knew I would never be published again? – aren’t just private manifestations of these feelings of guilt or impostor-hood: they are asked of writers in public with extraordinary frequency. What they signify is not a culture-wide mistrust of writers, but a suspicion about the self, entertained privately and spoken aloud. The person who asks the question asks it in a condition of personal doubt about the value and meaning of their own creativity, and about whether that creativity has been lost or betrayed; and if so, what the moral status of the betrayal is.
Creative writers are people endeavouring to maintain or re-forge their links to their original selves. Part of that endeavour lies in the struggle to serve and find meaning in reality, and ultimately to align oneself to it sufficiently to offer an authoritative interpretation of what one sees. It is an attempt to understand and represent the world while remaining in it as a vulnerable and fallible living thing. Yet the nature of reality is to upset this balance and offer challenges to the sense of self: art – whether one’s own or other people’s – can appear casually swept away by the instability of our environment, just as a child’s game can be scattered and ruined by someone carelessly interrupting it. What I remember from the years I spent learning to be a writer was the difficulty of bringing these two opposites – the burning importance of the play-world and the utter indifference of the actual world – into sufficient balance for the work to be done. It remains, in fact, the central difficulty of creative work, one that is always presenting itself anew.
This period, for me, has represented a kind of armistice in that conflict: since the actual world has broken down, play can at the very least command the field for a period. I have enjoyed the return, as it were, to my roots, and have found myself far less fettered in the conception and composition of my work. Most of all I have been sustained by it, absorbed by and interested in it for its own sake, in much the same way I was as an unpublished writer. Perhaps when the actual world went away, it took the criticisms and the caveats and the possibilities of mockery and abuse with it. For the emerging writer, the fear will be that no one is listening. My advice to the writers of this volume, and to my younger self, is to enjoy the silence while it lasts and to use it well.