As part of our annual October Subscription Drive, we’re excited to to publish snippets of work from our latest issue, Westerly 63.1, to showcase the fantastic contemporary literature we publish and to serve as a taster of what a subscription to Westerly has to offer. In honour of Non-Fiction Lovers’ Week, we’re pleased to publish David Carlin’s ‘Love Lane (the work of writing)’.
In Georgetown, Penang, is an old narrow street called Love Lane. Historically, it’s a place of illicit passions, where everyone knows that boundaries have been crossed, a territory of the forbidden. Love Lane has names in many languages: in Hokkien, 爱情巷 (Ai Cheng Hung)—the Lane of Lovers. In Cantonese it has been called 十字架礼拜堂边 (Shap Tsz Ka Lai Pai Thong Pin), meaning: Cross the Church’s Side. To avoid stepping over lovers, one presumes. One night late, some of us walked up Love Lane, coming from a karaoke bar in a distant shopping mall. We saw an owl clutching a butchered mouse between its jaws. We talked about the Goddess Kali and other deities that haunted us, or failed to seduce.
What kind of work is writing? You can write brochures, advertisements, reports, media releases, articles, speeches, soap operas, textbooks, jingles, legal opinions, menus, messages in the froth of coffee (‘Nice Day’)—even words in the sky—and get paid like anybody else. Salaried or contract, paid by the hour or by the word, writing can be piecework, piecing together language.
Writers can get paid to fend off clichés, if we’re lucky. If we’re unlucky, or indiscriminate, we get paid to marshal clichés, or disguise them. Some writers get paid to make other people rich, and a few become rich themselves in doing so. You can lose your soul in the bright lights of the commercial thoroughfares. You can forget what you came for in the first place. Long before there were hackers there were hacks.
But writers—true writers—live in Love Lane. These are the poets and the pamphleteers, the fabulists, reporters, those with eyes and ears and sweat in their loins, those who wake up with ghosts pressing down on them, those who become crumpled in small spaces and fall out into gutters, those who bring axes into stories, those whose mothers have incandescent elbows, those who go to bed thinking of whales, those who draw pictures with words and words with pictures, those who have been tear-gassed, those whose fathers left them, those whose fathers forgot the name of God or why they had filled their office drawers with toothbrushes, those for whom writing is the only way to digest the world, those whose characters can live for four hundred years, be born a man and die a woman, those who prefer to paint words with their breath and with a microphone, who slam poetic for President Obama, who have been known to drink tequila, who yell Cheat! because nobody else will, even though it means they forfeit any chance of winning, those who are called away on urgent business but come back, those who will gaze out of the window as long as it takes to find a way to finish a sentence—those who surrender to worlds that remind them of love. Those who sometimes have to wait for months until the rain comes. Those who write in the dark, and into the darkness.
Like any other work, money cannot help but be involved. Transactions can be murky, tawdry. Lovers can be businesspeople. The writer who creates work as a gift also wants to sell it. But the short story or the poem that comes visiting, the essay that meanders by, the piece of reportage that burns a hole in the carpet, the novel swirling in the air—each of these in the end wants only what it wants, oblivious to the price tag.
The work of writing is private and dirty. It takes place behind closed doors. In writing, something can seem good in the morning but turn out to be bad before dinner. A story that wants to be hilarious is only stupid. A writer, knowing nothing, and less every day, stubbornly consents to the feeling of humiliation. There is always the sound of tearing coming through the walls. Words are being minced and shredded. Whole sentences and chapters regularly die. A book, the work of ten years, is quietly sequestered, somewhere in the house. A writer is only a writer because, notwithstanding all of this, she writes.
Too many writers feel alone, in or nearby Love Lane. There are parties going on, to which no-one is invited. No-one we know. There are salons, there are soirées, festivals and literary jamborees. There is the din of fantastical success from nearby streets. Agents’ Close. The Avenue of Headshots. Tweets light up the night sky.
A writer should never be caught writing, only afterwards, having showered: having written. Writers are distributed fresh pyjamas in a vain civic gesture, so that we will keep ourselves clean. You can see these pyjamas, or their tattered remnants, flapping from balconies all up and down Love Lane, especially during seasons of spirits, incense and firecrackers. For writers cannot finally be trusted: it’s why they congregate here, given half a chance, to spend their evenings and their mornings in Love Lane.
Every writer knows hubris and ecstasy. If you spy a writer’s face, caught in the act of writing, you should look out for those moments when her lips open slightly; observe the faint smile that plays across them, as the writer entertains her guests, the ghosts and images alighting. Writers, in the main, are privileged, spoilt, self-romanticising, self-obsessed, self- loathing, selfish. That doesn’t get them out of anything, much as they might like it to.
What kind of work is writing? Like any art, it makes the world. Even if it adds the faintest brushstroke, it tips gravity, unsettles the distribution of dark matter, pushes the future off-direction. Something new arrives.
Love Lane has names in many languages, because languages are like bodies, promiscuously touching.
In the middle of the night, the place is almost deserted. On one side you might find the Goddess Kali, on the other a merciless killer, a bird-spirit doing only what it has to do. Footsteps echo in the side-streets. I want to linger there. I want to go back there in my dreams. When the sun comes up I want to taste the char kway teow.
This essay was made possible through the WrICE (Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange) program of RMIT University, funded by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund. Thanks to WrICE co-directors Francesca Rendle-Short and Penny Johnson, as well as Ali Barker, Bernice Chauly, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Jennifer Down, Laurel Fantauzzo, Amarlie Foster, Robin Hemley, Eddin Khoo, Melissa Lucashenko, Harriet McKnight and Alvin Pang.
David Carlin is an award‐winning writer and creative artist born in Bridgetown, WA, whose books include The Abyssinian Contortionist (2015) and Our Father Who Wasn’t There (2010). David is Co‐Director of WrICE and non/fictionLab at RMIT University.
To see more work like this as it comes out, make the most of our Subscription Drive and subscribe to Westerly today! All new subscribers over the next month will go in the running to receive a book or poetry bundle. This week’s book bundle is for the non-fiction lovers and includes a copy of Escape from the Sun by Eugene Schlusser, Dancing in Shadows by Anna Haebich and The Demarchy Manifesto by David Ritter among works by various other talented Australian authors. Use the code OCTSUB18 at check out for our Drive discount and for your chance to win! Don’t miss out!