Once upon a time I was a writer… No, not once – thrice upon a time.
First time: in second or third class the teacher directed us to write a composition. We did as we were told. I enjoyed writing. My composition was chosen and read to the class. I was a writer and one year later, when the Melbourne ‘Age’ published a little piece, I was a published writer.
Second time: at medical school, achieving mediocrity in exams, I found relief editing and writing for a paper. I published what I wrote.
Third time: with a family now grown up and my own parents failing, I was a writer heavily charged with material. I wrote and my friends and family responded. Among the responders one friend in particular responded decisively. Often enough she responded derisively; and not just often enough but more often than enough.
I had good reason to pay attention to my critic friend. She had been an adult reader for many more years than I had been an adult writer. Further my critic was trained in criticism while I was untrained in writing.
Curiously my early vulgarity didn’t trouble her much. My sentimentality (an abiding tendency) excited little reproof. And even the structural shambles, the way narrative fell upon narrative by accident into a happy enough heap, provoked no rebuke.
The problem with my writing was the writer. Contrary to my critic’s command I did not write of Howard the way Howard should write of Howard. In truth this was not willful delinquency (another abiding tendency) but incomprehension. So stratospheric is my critic’s sophistication, her principles eluded me.
The pages of my first two books are Howard-haunted. Howard Bloody Goldenberg is to be found in the middle of every page or in its margin or inescapably behind every page, pages that can never be thick enough to disguise Howard. This drove my critic mad. It was not that Howard was full of himself (he is that) but that Howard was represented without precisely the ‘self-reflexivity’ (my critic’s term) that she demanded. ‘Howard’, she wagged her finger imperiously, ‘Howard, you are refusing to become the writer Howard should be. Your subject, your great subject, is Howard…’
This criticism, emphatic and oft-repeated, merely increased my self-consciousness. Eventually it would drive Howard from the page. Thus, in book number three (‘Carrots and Jaffas’) there exists a character who resembles Howard but is not Howard. Although that character is a male in his sixties, a compulsive storyteller, an outback doctor with a large nose and lavatorial obsessions, he is not Jewish, not Howard per se. In truth I no longer trusted Howard to create Howard. My critic had achieved something worthwhile; she had demolished a formerly impregnable exhibitionist. This was surely to the good, for Howard the person showed an objectionable and retrograde refusal to adopt my critic’s view of the world. (The critic started adult life as a social activist, becoming a member of a commune, a welfare worker, resolutely a conscious and conscientious proletarian. In time she learned the profound error of her ways and unlearned her early amused tolerance of Howard’s political softheadedness.)
Meanwhile Howard had become a blogger and my critic became my bloggee. I would write, my daughter would post and my critic would criticise. More and more my critic criticised Howard for not being my critic’s faithful disciple. At one stage, in outraged surprise, she accused me of being ‘green’.
Given this blog’s unrepentant diarising of Howard’s life, his thought, his memories and stories – in short this blog being Howard on the virtual page – my critic found the entire exercise personally provoking. Possibly intentionally so. Her criticisms of Howard were now unrelenting, and of course, public.
It is timely here to remind my reader that my critic is a friend, that she certainly wishes for nothing more than my improvement. She has in mind my ascension into a literary realm which exists clearly in her sight and quite outside my powers of vision. In her private love of Howard this friend is staunch. In public she is an attack dog. At first puzzled, later a little hurt, eventually wryly amused that such a thing might be, I accepted her blank rebuttal of my private objection to her tone. ‘Howard’, she wrote (publicly of course), ‘Once your writing emerges into the public sphere you cannot expect criticism to remain private.’ Fair enough. Perfectly logical, fully consistent with literary purity. And perfectly blind to the imperatives of friendship.
I came to accept a painful reality:
The moving finger writes,
And having writ, moves on;
Nor all thy piety nor wit
Can lure it back
Nor cancel half a word of it
(From the Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam)
Eventually the moderator of this blog published guidelines of the limits to decent blogly conduct; and the critic, declaring herself to be my ‘troll’ (to me a new concept), banished herself from these pages.
My critic helped me immensely. She forced me to examine every self-syllable I wrote. She required of me an intensification of my self-consciousness. To this day she shadows every line I write, shaping my writing to conceal my thought, as she peers through the ether for Howard malignancy, stimulating me to a meticulous attention to some standard I never grasped but for which I blindly reach. Of course the cost is a friend who, in the name of friendship, has shat upon friendship.