A Writerly Alchemy
When Robert of Chester completed his translation of ‘The Book of the Composition of Alchemy’ in 1144, he introduced alchemy to 12th century Europe and with it such words as alcohol, carboy, elixir and athanor for which there were no Latin equivalents. In his act of translation, he gave us something new. In my previous editorial, I used the phrase ‘a writerly alchemy’ to describe how we spark off each other’s ideas as we write and create. In attempting to transmute base metal into gold, alchemists refine and purify again and again, hoping to produce the quintessence, that mysterious fifth entity thought to be latent in all things. As writers, we draft and redraft, endeavouring to convey the pure essence of the experience. I have returned to the same phrase in this editorial in the hope that we will be able to delve deeper into our own ‘Write Life’ – and in doing so capture the essence of our craft.
When, as a young girl, I discovered the word quintessence, I thought it the most remarkable word I had ever read or heard. For me, bizarrely, it conjured up an image of an enormous Bakewell tart, its quintessence being the cherry on the top. This could well have stemmed from the advertising slogan that Mr Kipling makes ‘exceedingly good cakes’. I reasoned that he obviously had the quintessence in his sights when he created his Cherry Bakewells.
Fast forward to 2020 and the joy of discovery has been swamped by the daily task of getting by and staying safe in the ‘new normal ‘. So, where is the magic now? Well, the truth is that it is where it has always been: hiding in plain sight, in the words we use, recall and create to reveal the world. If somewhere along the way, we have momentarily lost the connection, the four pieces I have selected for this issue will help us to re-establish that link. They each respond to the wonder of words in different ways and remind us about the charm of it all.
Sophia Kouidou-Giles is a regular contributor to The Write Life, offering powerful insights into the task of translating. She often discusses the processes we use in order to make each translation ring as truly as it did in the original version. In ‘The Alchemy of Words’ she explores the way we hope to transform base ideas into gold when we write. In citing the Muses, she transports us to Greece, the land of her birth, reflecting on the endless permutations that ‘[transform] our ordinary souls into the magic world of books.’ She reminds us of Homer’s gift for words. Whether the Iliad and the Odyssey are the works of one writer or several, the wonder still remains.
I have been delighted to welcome Michael Paul Hogan to The Write Life pages. His work always sparkles with energy, reflecting the sheer breadth of his experience as a poet, journalist, fiction writer and literary essayist. In ‘Tsundoku and the Art of Infinite Reading’ he deftly summarises both the joy and the torment in our love of books. His subtle focus on the undervalued art of listening is a telling point and one to be explored further. He observes, ‘We are a strange people, a noisy people. We praise a man for being a great orator; we rarely bestow equal stature on a great listener.’ How true! His story within a story, with the lightest of post-modernist touches, reflects the infinity of reading.
Dominic Fisher is another regular contributor to The Write Life, whose series ‘Notes From The Allotment’ offers readers a delightful mix of wry humour, perceptive poetry criticism and pertinent gardening tips as he engages in conversation with visiting poets. That they are all dead reflects his constant concern to keep The Write Life on the legal side of copyright laws more than anything else. Knowing we were about to visit his allotment shed, he has generously whipped up a tempting alchemical salad, remembering some of the visitors he had welcomed previously and revealing those still to knock on his shed door. ‘And rising up out of the clay and humus in the long evenings are other fragments, invented poets, inventions of poets by the same poet, and poets who never existed.’ Just breathe in the smell of that damp earth and believe!
Kevin Kling’s first contribution to The Write Life, ‘Staying Up All Night’ gave words to our grief at George Floyd’s murder. With over 2,500 likes on Facebook, it clearly spoke to us all. His piece ‘Questions and Answers’ neatly brings us back to Greek Literature once more with its discussion of the weaving of metaphor and sequence to create cloaks of immortality. Among the cacophony of bird calls, car horns and laundromats, we are offered the silent gift of a blind goatherd’s smile.
The blind goatherd in Kevin’s story resonates throughout literature. Homer and Tiresias are perhaps the more obvious connections, both blessed with an insight that saw beyond their blindness. Tiresias’ prophetic gifts must have been intensified too by the knowledge gained from the seven years he lived as a woman. But then the goatherd surely has subtle echoes of Caedmon, the earliest named English poet. An illiterate herdsman who lived in 7th century Northumbria, he feared singing and speaking in front of others until he had a dream that encouraged him to find his voice.
The first word he uttered when relating his poem to the monks was ‘Nú’ – Now. Now he could put his former shyness behind him. Now he had a poem. Now he could sing. Now he was free. Now. What a wonderful starting point. All he needed was someone to listen to him and write it down.
On Cape Clear island, Kevin tells us, birds find refuge and we find answers to questions we have not even asked. Everything has some sort of connection if you listen hard enough.
And perhaps that is ultimately what is at the heart of our writerly alchemy – to write and to read well we must learn to listen too.
Editor of The Write Life