Last night I discovered a piece of paper you can use to order breakfast to your room. I put a cross next to “coffee” and another, out of curiosity, by “news”. At seven a.m. on the dot, a trolley arrived. On it was some food and a single printed sheet with the “news” in English on one side and in Spanish on the other. This sheet of paper in itself would make a good topic for the discussion about translation that’s taking place later today, but for now, may I draw your attention to its most relevant (or its least depressing) headline: Philae has drilled into the comet but is running out of energy.
Philae dying isn’t depressing. But it is a bit sad. I suggest we see her off with a beautiful song, one of the many beautiful songs I heard last night.
By Stu Larsen:
Darling I should’ve said goodbye
Before you even caught my eye
Now I can’t bear to see this die
Thirteen sad farewells my darling
Thirteen sad farewells
I will see you no more darling
You have used all your farewells
You have used all your farewells
Despite my love for the written word, it’s a bit of an anti-climax seeing that there: black on white, without notes or lights or strings, without that thing we saw so much of yesterday: I’d say “the power of music”, but my anti-cliché alarms are going off.
We saw pure presence. Concentration and well-aimed blows from the diaphragm. Norma Jean Martine, Trampled by Turtles, Iron and Wine, Stu Larsen. All of them surrendering themselves to the stage. We saw something you don’t often see: the vulnerable alchemy of music being made before your eyes.
The vulnerability is necessary: you’re not creating anything that matters if you don’t feel a little bit naked. I fight it with duvets and woolly hats. Making me wrap up warm is how my inner grandmother persuades me to carry on.
But singers can’t cover up. Or they can, but their masks are different, and their mistakes are on show. There are no hours of rewriting: the ego has to be more flexible.
As a writer, I learn from singers. From their precision. From their voices like an age-old octopus, its tentacles tickling the necks of everyone in the room, or pushing down on their breastbones until the tears gather.
Two acts made me cry. One was Stu Larsen. He sings like a choirboy who left the church to travel the world, broadened his vocal register and let his beard grow. I’m normally terrible at guessing these things, but googling him confirmed my intuitions: Christianity and life On The Road. These days he has no fixed address, but more and more gigs. His octopus-voice (like Iron and Wine’s) gets inside your chest and shatters or illuminates you as it pleases. After the show you want to approach him and say: Thank you.
I was also moved by the Indian American writer Akhil Sharma. He was talking about Family Life, an autobiographical novel it took him twelve and a half years to write.
Was it worth it?, they asked him.
His answer was frank: No, no, no, of course it wasn’t worth it.
I understand his frustration. The terrible part wasn’t searching for a voice to tell the story, or what he threw away (7000 pages, he said). It was being unable to move onto the next thing. Because the searching and throwing away is normal: it’s what we do. To end up with the 600 words of this chronicle, I got rid of 4000. I left out people, anecdotes, places (and a mammoth’s jaw for sale in The Hague, which I’m really hoping I can include tomorrow).
You write chipping away at the rock face, until you find a seam and commit. You put on a woolly hat. You gather your courage. You throw everything else away.
The seam is the voice and this is my trade: stem gezocht.