If you want an analogy, all the colours are present right across the tapestry. There are 20 colours, that’s why it’s so thick. But the machine brings the colour to the surface when it’s needed. I think that’s an analogy for our character. We’ve got all of ourselves there, but the bit that’s necessary in any given moment comes to the surface. So, with my daughter, I’m a father. When I’m in the studio, I’m an artist. When I’m out, I’m ‘Grayson Perry’. So you ask what your identifiers are – artist, tranny, father, man, motorcyclist – and you’ve got a hierarchy of things. And that’s the nature of identity, isn’t it?
– Grayson Perry, interviewed by Simon Hattenstone
Over the past couple of weeks or so, I’ve managed to publish a blog post, on average, every other day. In fact, I had a run of four consecutive days, as the summerlike fruits of September morphed into the autumnal ebb of October – at a time when my various infirmities insolently ganged up on me, instead of patiently and politely waiting their turn. Considering the enormous effort it takes to produce a sentence that I’m reasonably happy with; or at least – like a proud but reluctant parent, regarding their offspring as they venture out on their own for the first time – let stand up on its own feet in public, this hints at a couple of my identities: that of sick (old) man raging, raging “against the dying of the light” of my inconstant health; and of writer… – and how, when I am unwell, one of the ways I cope is to express myself with the written word: something that brings me satisfaction, if not delight.
You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!
You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age, wretched in both.
– Shakespeare: King Lear
I can be either of these “identities” without necessarily clinging on to the other: but, when I am ill, I have the time to fill (of course – however condensed in reality); and yet, then, each utterance is won with greater grind – “and words express The manner of my pity-wanting pain” – although I believe that the combination thus provokes a different character of creativity: “That every word doth almost tell my name”.
Although I consume words as well as produce them (by a very hefty ratio in favour of the former…), I find I read differently – as well as write more volubly – when, say, confined to bed: either more deeply and deferentially, savouring the words, their meanings and context; or from a height where the words themselves are almost invisible, and I skip sparingly over them, hardly leaving evidence of my presence on their pages. Usually, I take a middle path: but I find, say, a headache can lead to text as solid distraction (drilling down into it) or as hollow diversion (when I float above it).
In some ways, the same can be said of my writing: and, although the results (following prolonged major linguistic surgery) can be identical, they come about, again, as a result of taking very different routes: what you could call ‘determined’ (i.e. it’s what I meant to say – but perhaps not how I meant to say it…) and ‘unintended’ (i.e. external and internal factors have led me to discover serendipitous congruences – possibly dug deep from my subconscious; encouraged by my medication; or simply that, as Elgar believed, “music is in the air all around you, you just take as much of it as you want” – what I call “Always listening to the breeze in the trees”).
Frequently, after I have storm-trooped my way through some idiosyncratic rant, I am then left without any neat way of concluding… – and it is often, then, that this latter ‘technique’ comes into play: my thoughts having stewed deep inside my shrinking brain; or been hung out to mature in the countryside around, before returning through an open window, (not quite, but nearly) fully-formed.
Articulate as I can be in print; in person, however, I know (and accept) that I am somewhat more taciturn and less coherent. A fundamental reason for this is – to paraphrase Virginia Woolf – that I must have room of my own if I am to write, to create, and not just follow a script: that is, not just satisfying a “need for poetic license and the personal liberty to create art”; but privacy (even if that isolation is an illusion, a bubble of seclusion in the middle of the hubbub of the RSC’s Riverside Café – where the fading-to-background hurly-burly acts as insulation from those around me…).
Only then may I bring “to the surface” the part (rôle and/or fraction) of me labelled ‘writer’ – or, more accurately, ‘creator’ or ‘composer’ (or even ‘inventor’) – and yet this is an identity that very few will witness in the flesh. In some ways, therefore, it could be said that this is as close to the ‘real’ me as can exist: except, of course – because I know this portrayal will make appearances in public… – it is still an highly-edited version.
But the writing is also public…. Its source is perhaps the very source of fiction itself – the mysterious and compulsive need to find a rhythm and an artful tone to suggest and communicate the most private feelings and imaginings and facts to someone else, to make sentences which will move from mirroring the writer to allowing the reader to catch a more intense glimpse of the world.
– Colm Tóibín: A grief observed