Robert Rowland Smith

The philosophy lecturer and author of Breakfast with Socrates shares a couple of his trade secrets

Robert Rowland Smith

‘There’s an obvious irony in writing about how I write. It means using the very medium that I’m describing, and that creates a miniature black hole in any objectivity I might bring to the subject. To use a highfalutin comparison, it reminds me of ‘Las Meninas’ by Velázquez – a painting about painting.

‘Philip Larkin once ridiculed the notion that writers were too grand to do the washing up. Pulling the plug on authorial pretension, he was implying that writing is an activity like anything else. And how can you argue? I might fancy writing an elevated métier, but were you to visit my study, you’d behold a pretty lowly scene: bookshelves, desk, lamp. Empirically observed, the writing that takes place is nothing remarkable, and I could never sell tickets. What’s more, writing is a job: as well as the intellectual reward it brings, one writes – in the same way that one bakes bread or sells insurance – to earn money. No, I don’t have a boss, my commute takes about 20 seconds, and I’ve yet to give myself a performance appraisal, but my writing is my work, and I even have a limited company – limited to one – to prove it.

‘How do I actually write? As much as I love the muffled percussion of the keys on my Mac, which feel like a digital piano with the power off, the writing part of writing is relatively small: it’s not only when I’m writing that I’m writing. The good writer is the good reader, someone given to taking things in, and that means considering everything as grist to the mill. Whatever I’m doing, I’m always thinking about what it means, and whether it could become useful text. Only when you’ve absorbed a lot can you give a little.

‘But as much as writing means taking in what’s without, it’s about putting out what’s within. You have to let what’s inside you come out of the shadows. Each of us has a psychic reservoir that’s changed little since childhood, and writers, particularly poets and novelists, need to tap in to it. If we think of writing as a form of expression, then let’s pursue what that implies: expression is the opposite of repression, and so writing might be less about creating something new than releasing what is old. What’s original about someone’s writing is not its novelty, but the singular way in which it reprises a singular past.

‘And, perhaps, the more singular the better. It’s said that owing to his asthma, Proust wrote in a cork-lined room; Joyce, his contemporary, had such poor eyesight that he had to wear a white coat, to reflect as much light on to the page as possible. They still wouldn’t have made much money from writing as performance art, but they might have sold a few more tickets than someone like me. Still, I am acutely aware that writing involves managing that traffic which passes through the mind. In writing, I tune in to things around me; I also draw on my own reserves of reading and thinking, all that dark matter which has been sloshing around my head. It’s a process that every year or so results in a book, and a book marks that boundary between what’s without and what’s within. When I write, I’m trying to get a perfect symmetry between the two.’
Breakfast with Socrates is published by Profile Books.

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