On Hearing Voices

Saturday 24 December 2016 17:10

I hear voices a lot – chance remarks, odd ways of saying things. Sometimes it’s a casual phrase that I hear in a different way; I hear the oddity of it rather than the meaning. These stories are full of those oddities: ‘I bought a heart’, ‘For fun times phone dodger’ (from the inside of a toilet stall in Dublin Airport), ‘interacting with the ghosts’, ‘It was sad but sooner or later I just know this shit is going to change for me’ etc. 

It’s important that the person who says it is a stranger because I don’t need complete stories, I need something to set me thinking. ‘I got the death certs for the crows’, the opening of this story, came from a conversation overheard on a train. The person who said it was sitting behind me. I hadn’t heard the beginning and the remainder of the conversation was drowned out by the announcement that passengers for Limerick should change. The person who said ‘I got the death certs for the crows’ was for Limerick. From Limerick Junction to Dublin there’s plenty of time to weave a story around a phrase.

Often friends or acquaintances offer me stories. Sometimes they’re funny, sometimes they’re sad, sometimes even they have that element of weirdness that attracts me, a twist in the use of language, a shift in the perception of meaning. But it doesn’t do it for me, although I wish it did. It seems the randomness of happening is essential.

I’m sometimes asked at readings ‘where my inspiration comes from’ and, although I’m never sure that ‘inspiration’ is an accurate description for the weirdness that goes on in my head, I usually reply that it’s not so much inspiration as a habit of paying attention in a certain way – not just to conversations or events but also to books and music and pictures. Reading, listening, watching are all ways of absorbing the absurdity of this world where children wash up on dead on holiday beaches and bankers and hedge funds rule democracies.

This is my second collection of stories, but my sixth book of fiction and I also write poetry, of which I’ve published three collections. I’ve never recognised the divisions between different kinds of writing. For me writing is writing – an obsession with words, with different sorts of communication, with stories and images, with the attempt to capture what we see and hear in a completely artificial construction. Because, of course, although language feels natural to us, it is, in fact, an artifice. Sentence structures don’t just happen. They are tightly regulated as exposure to a second language quickly demonstrates. 

Where does it come from? This human urge to express, to describe, to impress, to inform? This seemingly most human of needs, the thing that makes us social, the tie that binds us one to another sometimes for a lifetime? I recognise the same urge in music, in painting, in sculpture, but none of the other art forms has such an urgent, visceral connection to the human heart and mind as the manipulation of words and the telling of tales.

For me all writing is important. I work as hard on emails as I do on poems. I edit my mobile phone messages – I even punctuate them and have been known to use semi-colons (sometimes correctly). I would rather describe myself as a ‘writer’ than anything else, that general term that seems to me to apply, with a measure of humility, to all shapes and sizes, all structures and forms of composition using words. My uncles were in the Royal Navy during the war and I remember one of them telling me that there was a rank in the navy called ‘Ship’s Writer’. I would happily have fulfilled that role. Two centuries before I would have written (and embellished) letters for people who couldn’t read or write.

I first began writing with intent when I was twelve years of age. I fell seriously ill and spent a year more or less in bed. I began writing stories and poems, perhaps as compensation for inaction and confinement. They gave me a larger world, broke me out of the prison of my bed and the endless hospital visits, and the doctor’s gloomy prescience. A half-crippled boy could escape into books and project himself into them and beyond them through his own writing. In a sense the opposite motivation has gradually taken up residence over the years since then – a tendency towards what Francis Bacon called the ‘hiding and veiling of oneself’. 

In many ways, fiction has appeared to me as place to hide. 

I can hide behind other people’s stories, the made up details of made up characters’s lives, the made up places and the made up happenings, the exigencies of the plot or the mechanism that makes a character work. I recognise also, that words themselves make things up, that the moment we put words on something we have shifted a step away from reality. 

I don’t like publicity, and I don’t like public gatherings much, with the exception of readings which I always enjoy. In my case the writer as a solitary is not an empty trope, or it’s not a completely empty one anyway. I work in semi-isolation, my first reader always being my wife who is also my best critic. But we have a rule between us that has evolved over the years: I never tell her anything about what I’m working on until it’s nearly finished. I’ve found that talking about my next great idea usually results in me discovering that it’s not great at all and that I have no desire to write it anymore. I suspect that the basic need to communicate is what drives me, and one form of communication is as good as the next as far as my subconscious mind is concerned. That is, if the urge to write comes from the subconscious. It certainly can be as troubling as that particularly piece of Freudian speculation. In any case, talking is telling and telling is one of the reasons I write. It’s also the title of a story in this collection.

First published in The Irish Times