24 December 2018

Bending like a reed

At the City library the low afternoon sun was flashing from a sign that hung, swaying in a cool wind, over the footpath. The angle of the reflected light was such that it hit me — and, as far as I could work out, only me — at exactly the right angle to blind me, as if I was being questioned by a military interrogator who was convinced I was a spy or terrorist, or who just liked being a sadistic arsehole. I had to turn my head and close my eyes and lean to one side and trust that in a few minutes the sunlight would have slid off the swaying sign and I’d be able focus my attention entirely on Thom, whose talk, entitled Bend Like a Reed, was the reason I was sitting there with a dozen other people, listening.

I recognised three: the elderly woman who perfectly fitted the adjective I didn’t want to use because it sounded patronising (namely, ‘sprightly’); the young guy from Bruce McKenzie’s bookshop; and the dishevelled Poet, who slumped in the chair in front of me, spilling out of the ragged green jersey that looked as if it had shrunk in the wash but was still too big for him. The right sleeve had an enormous hole that must have driven him mad every time he pulled the jersey on and ended up poking his hand through the wrong hole in his sleeve. Mind you, I found it impossible to imagine the Poet being driven mad by anything, because I’d never seen him animated; if anyone wanted to explain ‘phlegmatic’, The Poet was the perfect example.

The sun did eventually move off the sign and stopped blinding me, and I could begin to concentrate on Thom’s silhouette and what he was saying. He mentioned his late colleague, Scott, whom I’d met several times and who was a good friend of a good friend of mine, and he referred to a point Scott had made about writing and the importance of ‘the abyss of mystery’, and gradually I began to understand what he was saying — or I thought I did. If I did, what Thom was saying reassured me, because I thought the same thing, and to hear Thom affirm it gave me some hope that maybe my own approach to writing — which seemed in so many ways to conflict with the conventional advice about writing — might not be as wrong as I thought.

If I understood correctly, what Thom was saying was that it’s important not to know — at least, not too clearly — what you’re writing. Perhaps what he was getting at was that good writing is an act of creation, which, almost by definition, must be spontaneous in the sense of happening at the moment of being written. If you know what you’re going to write, the writing is no longer an act of creation — it’s already been created.

The following evening (the evening I wrote the draft of this, in other words), I made my way to Barista, bought a coffee and sat down to write. I had no idea what I’d write about, so I began anyway, and soon after I’d jotted down some notes about being blinded in the library at the start of Thom’s talk, the sun slipped through the cafe windows and, reflecting from the varnished tabletop, dazzled me. I shaded my eyes, bent like a reed over the abyss of mystery, and carried on writing.

1. About Thom Conroy

Photos (you can connect them with the text if you think hard enough): 
1. Willow in wind and drizzle, Pohangina Valley
2. Waipawa River headwaters, Ruahine Range

Photos and original text © 2018 Pete McGregor