EWWC - Sophie Cooke on Style vs Content

Style vs Content

Keynote address given by Sophie Cooke

First presented at The Bookworm International Literary Festival, Beijing


Sophie Cooke Keynote text: “Style versus Content, or: The Tao of Writing”

Ali Smith, in her wonderful speech on this topic of style versus content, proposed that we shouldn’t try to separate style from content. That the two are truly inseparable.

In my opinion – and of course everything I say here is simply my own opinion – style does. Content is. Style without content is vacant doing, meaningless activity. Content without style is unexpressed. Style is yang, content yin. They are opposites. Yet in harmony they create each other, and in the end become each other. So I agree with Ali, that it is impossible to conceive of one without the other. But it is very possible – desirable – to conceive of them as separate aspects of a whole, of writing in the sense of tao.

Why is it desirable to see these aspects separately? What does it matter, really, in a world troubled by global warming, unnecessary wars, soaring inequality, and unrestrained greed? Why are we here talking about style versus content in literature.

Let me quote from the great, late, poet, Adrienne Rich.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

I think we use stories to help us locate the shipwrecks. Knowing someone else has been here before us can make us braver, more able to shine a lamp into the proof of our own forgotten storms. Perhaps the reason why writing feels like discovery rather than creation, is because it is really an act of remembering what we know.

Language, style: these are how we communicate the content that we find, when we dive down to the wreck – the truth beneath the surface of things. It is pointless to go there without them. We need to be able to express what we have found. Retrieving that lost content is important because it is:

Amazing how the forgetting
enables deathly ruins to be reborn
the fortunate nourished by the decomposed

in the words of the imprisoned poet Liu Xiaobo. Remembering the truth about oppression helps us avoid becoming part of new injustices. Something that is difficult to do, because most societies contain unjust structures of privilege which seem natural or normal to us – or perhaps simply inevitable.

Ali also mentioned the courage a writer must have, to approach their work well. I agree. I would like to observe that to be stylish is not a courageous act. In fact, the more outrageous and apparently provocative your style, the more, as a writer or a fashion designer or a pop star, you will be celebrated. The courage is not for style. No. It is needed for the long, dark, lonely dive, down to the wreck. The content of the writing. To go there completely is a frightening thing. To fully witness your personal losses, and your shame and your vulnerability; and the scale of humanity’s tragedy. The space between the wrecks and the world in which you – or all of us – might not be drowned. Between the sunlit breathing surface and these depths where the truth lives; where things have happened.

But treasures, in that dark world, do prevail. We find the gifts of love and wisdom that sank inside the ships, under the weight of the storms. And we make our maps.

I would like to re-tell two stories from Greek mythology. Both are stories of seeing what should not be seen, of giving up one’s innocence. First there is Pandora. The first woman, sent to man as a punishment for his arrogance, with a box which she is forbidden to open. Of course – she opens it. And all the evils in the world fly out – death, disease, greed, war, famine. It is the end of Eden. But at the very end of this dreadful emanation, one last thing flutters from the jar – for it is really a jar, and not a box. This thing is hope. Hope comes last.

To quote from Liu Xiaobo again:

I am merely
a discarded wooden plank
powerless to resist the crushing of steel
still, I want to save you no matter if you’re
dead or still barely breathing, breathing.

As writers, we can say: what your heart knows, is true. Here are other hearts that felt the same. You’re not crazy, to have these hopes and dreams. Listen, and move.

The second story I wanted to re-tell is the story of Psyche and Eros.

Psyche’s husband Eros forbids her from seeing his face. He comes to her by night: she does not even know who he is. Psyche, the mind, is ignorantly wedded to Eros, the heart, and she is happy. But then her jealous sisters begin to whisper. Perhaps we can compare them to the jealous sisters of the Weaver Girl in Chinese mythology, when she goes to visit the Cowherd. What Psyche’s sisters tell her is this: that her husband is a ghastly monster, a semi-human beast – this is why he will not let her see him. They encourage her to wait til he is sleeping, after love-making, and then sneak up on him – with a lamp and a knife. A lamp to see, a knife to sever the awful head.

But what the mind sees is not a monster. Instead, she sees beauty. So beautiful, the heart, that the mind stands transfixed. A drop of oil falls from her lamp onto his skin, and wakes him. Furious at her disobedience, he leaves her. He will not return, because she looked at him.

For me, this is a truer story than Pandora’s. What we see when we look inside ourselves is not only the pain of ugly feelings. It is also the pain of impossible hopes, uncynical love.

Why does Eros forbid Psyche to see him? Why does the heart flee, when it is seen?

If writing has its yin and yang of content and style, of being and doing, the heart has a yin and yang also. The heart that does – the heart that wants, and loves, and desires – this heart is easy to see. It speaks to our minds all the time. It tells us what it wants, and asks us to get it. Go make safe the things that are dear to me! Get me things I can give to the ones I love. Avenge the wrongs done to my darlings. We know how to listen to this. We pursue our desires; we protect our homes and our children. We care for the people we love, and we seek to fulfil our ambitions. Perhaps we exact vengeance.

But the heart has another side we can not see. The heart that is. This heart does not come out: it is unexpressed, by itself. And this heart knows that it is crazy. Because it belongs in a world of peace and harmony, a world that’s in such perfect balance, no action is needed. It simply wants to be love. The quiet heart can’t be acknowledged by the mind, because it’s at odds with the heart the mind already knows. It is its opposite, and that other heart could devour it in an instant. The mind expected to see ugliness, and instead saw gentleness and beauty.

Psyche is, literally, broken-hearted. She begs the gods for a chance to regain Eros. She is set three seemingly impossible tasks by Eros’ mother, Aphrodite, which she completes. But there’s a final hurdle. She must go down to hell, and return with a box of beauty cream – which she must, on no account, open. You can see where this is going.

Psyche enters the underworld. The mind travels down into the depths: sees the faces of the shipwrecked. Psyche sees the truth. She gets the cream and she carries it back. She brings this treasure up to the sunlight. She’s out on the open fields. And she thinks – perhaps this cream will make me so beautiful, my lost heart will come back to me. So she lifts up the lid.

No demons fly out: no evils. Because she has already encountered them, underground. She has dealt with them. Instead, a gas that puts her to sleep. And this was always Aphrodite’s plan, of revenge. She knew that Psyche would open up the box; just as it was always known that Pandora would pull the cork from the jar. But Eros has been watching Psyche. He knows what she has been through, knows she has gone to hell and back, gone through the greatest loneliness and suffering – maybe now she can grasp him. He returns to her, and wakes her – how else? – with a kiss. Mind and hiding heart are consciously united. The mind, because of what it has been through, can finally see the yin heart and understand it. The yin heart knows and trusts this. So it reveals itself. No need, any more, for the mind to sneak up on it with tricks and suspicions.

We go to see, as writers and as readers, what we are discouraged from seeing in our everyday lives. We go looking for the truth beneath the image.

In our everyday lives, we are surrounded by lies. Lies in our personal lives, or our workplaces. Lies in our cultures and societies, in our media and in our educational establishments. Lies about our national histories, the airbrushing of empires; lies about our economic systems: the unimproveable rule by global capitalism; lies about the reasons for our wars, in which inconvenient states must be our enemies. In their specifics, in different locations and on different scales, the lies vary. They can be so ingrained in the worlds in which we have grown up, our busy clamouring hearts don’t notice the discrepancies. But our quiet hearts have always known, and if we want to see them they will send us out, until we have gone far enough from what we thought we knew, to see – the evidence of damage.

What we find is, partly, terrible. But it’s as we suspected!  The urges behind the crimes are in our own noisy hearts too: that’s how we knew we’d find them. The surprise is that we can also find the quiet heart, in the process of acknowledging the truth. We find hope, and forgotten dreams. Dreams we had when we were innocent. The part of us that experienced loss is the part that had those dreams, before it gave them up.

Our minds – and our speaking hearts – tell us to accept a situation of managed violence, injustice, and inequality. We’re only human, after all. What do we expect? To live in the world our hidden yin hearts dream of? Well – yes. A world without greed or violence. A place of balance.

This hope, which we find on the other side of truth, can revivify us even if our hearts are dead or barely breathing, breathing… Because the hope is common to all of us, it can be passed between us – in love, in words, in books.

So we read the maps, the ones gifted to us by others. We write new ones. We do it differently, because our style is our manner of living, as unique as our personal histories. We make our own versions of the truth. The truth itself, though – that is our shared source of content. The wreck and not the story of the wreck.

The relativists were right that truth belongs to to no-one in particular. Two things they forgot: firstly, if you follow it from the obvious tentacle of your life, to its centre, and return – there is hope; and secondly, the undefinable place at its centre belongs to all of us. Just because we can’t define something, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Copyright: Sophie Cooke, 2013