Monday, 13 February 2012

Me and Leonard

A few posts ago I mentioned that one special day I found myself (well, at least my name and Shelter's name) in the same issue of the Guardian as Leonard Cohen.

One thing that Leonard said really struck me as profound. (I figure as a fan, a Canadian, and co-Guardian subject, I can call him that).  He was talking about writing as work, and the fact that songs don't come easily to him, but that he could hardly compare it to work in a world where "guys go down into mines, chewing coca and spending all day in backbreaking labour." The interviewer asked him if he learned anything from writing. Did he work out ideas that way? Leonard said,

 "I think you work out something. I wouldn't call them ideas. I think ideas are what you want to get rid of. I don't really like songs with ideas. They tend to become slogans. They tend to be on the right side of things: ecology or vegetarianism or antiwar. All these are wonderful ideas but I like to work on a song until those slogans, as wonderful as they are and as wholesome as the ideas they promote are, dissolve into deeper convictions of the heart. I never set out to write a didactic song. It's just my experience. All I've got to put in a song is my own experience."

I like this first of all because it's an unfashionable thing to say and surely Leonard Cohen is one of the coolest people on the planet. At seventy-seven years old, he can say what he really thinks and no one's going to accuse him of being trite. I remember when I was in my first university Creative Writing class, back in the 1980s, the professor told us to write what we knew. That advice is out of style now. In a recent Globe and Mail interview about Cat's Table, Michael Ondaatje goes to great pains to deny that the novel is a memoir. Fine, I get that. As a writer, you want the freedom to invent where the facts are too dull or don't fit your design. But then he says, "I really don’t want to write down what I already know. If I’m going to write about something that happened in my childhood, I’m going to invent the hell out of it. There are some writers who know exactly what the book is going to be before they write it. Writers I really admire. But that would bore the hell out of me."

I find this a deeply dismissive thing to say about writing in general and memoir in particular. (Back me up, Melanie Murray!) It's also the ultimate arrogance to think that it's easy to write down "what I already know." As Leonard Cohen's songs confirm, writing from your own experience doesn't mean writing what you already know. It means writing what you want to understand, what you've glimpsed, choked on, sweated over at 3 a.m. under the cover of your own shame, closed your eyes to, wept over, and made bargains with various forms of God over.

I often read (or listen to) work I think of as great: anything by Virginia Woolf, anything by Neil Young, Margaret Laurence's Diviners, T.S. Eliot's Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Homer's Odyssey, Leonard Cohen's Bird on a Wire, John  Lent's Real World and I ask myself what they have in common. What makes them great? And I think it's the quality that Leonard talks about. I'd almost call it sincerity. The artist has worked on it until he or she and their lofty ideas have disappeared and what's left is the most vulnerable and sincere core of experience. For me, I know it's great when I forget I'm reading or listening. There's no more clever writer, no talented musician. Just the deep "convictions of the heart."

Here's that wonderful, affectionate article about Mr. Cohen.

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