Sometimes the page is a mess. The sentences won’t hold their weight. The characters stiffen and hide their faces, or stand at centrestage and shriek. The plot takes corners you can’t follow, a dark figure with back turned, distant steps. The set is a series of shadows, or postcards of overused plastic towns. The voice sounds lifted from an answering machine – or an emergency room. The mood floods, or flatlines. The words tick, bloodless, from left to right. Or animals appear in the alphabet, things with raw faces that make shapes of pain and bare their teeth. The page goes into spasm. The page goes into stasis. You spend days staring down the vanishing point of the mess.
But mess is good. Mess is learning. The writer needs permission to make a mess. No musician was ever expected to come to their instrument fresh and bring forth faultless symphonies from the first strike. When we pick up our instrument we’re pitchy, rigid, fingers in the wrong frets, strum clumsy, tempo stalling, key deaf. But we learn to make the sounds, and we learn to hear them, we learn the feel of them under the stretch of our hands, the mood of the notes as they thrum in our chests. Learning to play language is no different. We discover how to tune the string of the sentence, where to pluck, where to chug. We learn because we just won’t put the instrument down, it grows into a part of us, it grafts into our muscle, we lug it everywhere, stroke it and punish it every second we can. We learn by riffing, by just plain stuffing around. Every writer needs permission to jam, to play about, tamper, hazard, have accidents, crash through syntax, detour from formula, mangle expected tone. The capacity to give up perfect, to rush past restriction and unleash a piece in the raw is the practice of surrender that every artist needs. I recently attended a literary festival where a panel of writers was asked, in essence, what is the point of teaching writing? One of the speakers, the flash fiction writer Tania Hershman, answered without hesitation: permission. It struck an instant chord, and in talks with her afterwards I wholeheartedly agreed: the crucial thing that students often receive in writing classes is as simple as that – permission to speak, to face a subject, to free a character, to use a phrase that once would have led to their mothers washing out their mouths. Permission is the first step. Nothing stifles artistry like those two other dreaded P words: perfection, prohibition. Censor the mess, you stub out the story, you stunt the poem, before it draws breath. It’s a state of havoc that gives rise to the creative upsurge, it’s surrender, it’s disorder, it’s risk. You have to give yourself permission to cause mayhem.
The pieces collected in Mayhem 2 exist because the writers gave themselves permission: to blunder drunk through the streets of ‘Shibuya,’ to blink headon into the ‘Shark Teeth’ of relationships, to guzzle the musky juice of seduction in ‘Peach,’ to “rub gasoline behind the ears” in ‘Mechanics,’ to burrow the “airless rooms” of memory in ‘Disclosed,’ to watch the strange blood of childhood run in ‘Just Like Dad,’ to bare ‘Autobiography’ in its simple longing, to deal the man a stinging taste of lip in ‘Your Life, My Rules,’ to “cough up the meaning of family” in ‘Alexander the Great,’ to commemorate the fragments of everyday grace that need saving in ‘Write.’ They are testament to the work that issues from writers who seize permission to speak, who demand and exercise that right with fully focused passion.
But for those of you who submitted to Mayhem and found themselves not selected: the answer is…keep making a mess, fail harder, fail better (to paraphrase that mantra of Samuel Beckett that should be nailed above every writer’s desk). And above all fail with feeling – for if there is a grain of feel, a trace of heat left in the wrecked page then there is always something to salvage, a seed to keep on working with. In my classes that’s what we learn to listen for: the place in the flawed page where we can feel the pulse, the moment in the mess of words where the blood really beats. That’s where the thing that needs to be written lives. That’s the thing, most often, you haven’t yet given permission.