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Sacrificing the Unbook

Monday, September 8, 2008 by Marianne Elliott

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"The only way [the book can be written] is to set the unbook – the gilt-framed portrait of the book – right there on the altar and sacrifice it, truly sacrifice it. Only then may the book, the real life flawed finite book, slowly, sentence by carnal sentence, appear." 

Bonnie Friedman

Last night I went to hear Robert Fisk talk about his work as a journalist, about human rights in the Middle East, about the occupation of Palestine, about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and about how he "copes" with the traumas of his work. He was promoting his new book. 

It was a great feeling for me, to sit in the large theatre filled with my fellow Wellingtonians and realise that they all care about what Fisk was saying. But in the midst of that pleasure I was struck by a sense of doom. How could I ever write a book about my work and life in Afghanistan and the Middle East given that it was clearly never going to be as good as what Robert Fisk would write. 

I sat thinking this for a few moments. Then I thought about all the books I've read and how impoverished my reading would be if every novelist gave up because they wouldn't be as good as Tolstoy, or how dull the theatre would be if every playwright gave up because they wouldn't be as good as Shakespeare. I do wish that a lot more journalists would worry about whether they were as good as Fisk – but that's a different story. 

So I pulled out my ticket stub and found an orange felt pen in my handbag and started scribbling notes to myself about stories of my own that Fisk had reminded me about. That ticket stub is now sitting on the kitchen table beside me and I'm about to write at least one of those stories.

The quote above leaped out at me today when I decided quite randomly to visit Laini's series of essays on writing at Not for Robots. It is time to place the gilt-framed portrait of the perfect book (one that Robert Fisk could write) on the altar and let it burn so that my book in all its flawed, finite reality can emerge. 


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11 Responses to "Sacrificing the Unbook"

  1. amy says:

    i’m so glad that you decided to let this experience inspire you. your story is one that only you can tell and i am sure it will be wonderful. it will be different to Fisk’s writing but the pleasure for us as readers is in the range of voices sharing their perspectives. i go to quite a lot of lectures and talks held in Sydney and it always makes me smile to see groups gathered together to hear people talk about the work that they’re passionate about – whatever it might be.

  2. Carol says:

    I adore the work of Robert Fisk. It’s wonderful that you were able to listen to him speak. I wish that every Western journalist would write with his clarity and honesty.

  3. sassy says:

    I love that quote in the beginning… and I can’t wait to see your unbook.

  4. Rachael King says:

    Also, Marianne, it’s not just subject matter that makes a book appealing, but point of view and that all-important voice. Both of these things are different in your writing from Fisk’s and that is a strength you should play to. I haven’t read his work, but I don’t imagine he will take the reader on his ’emotional journey’ (I put that in inverted comments because the word ‘journey’ is a little overused and slightly loathsome! But kind of appropriate here) as you would. the personal stories you put into your work sets you apart I think.

  5. tiny noises says:

    i can’t wait to read YOUR book. in your voice. of your experience and world view. You haven’t let your loyal fans down yet. we adore you and will be scribbling our own notes one day when we get the chance to hear you speak!

  6. ash says:

    when you’re book comes out- i certainly look forward to reading it. i’m sure that what you experienced can only be expressed in your perspective and that is what is most important. every one has a story…

  7. [a} says:

    😀 Heehee…I love Laini’s writing site! I used it for my creative writing projects. Your project is far bigger, of course–good luck with the unbook! xoxo

  8. Margaret says:

    Thanks for this. I have been struggling with my own writing right now, feeling like I have so much I want to share about my life with similar self doubts. Quite true that there would be no writing if we all compared ourselves to Tolstoy! I find inspiration in you. In typical Margaret fashion I am enrolled in a creative writing course and am exploring all genres as a means of getting my stories out. You at least have picked your genre! And concerning Fisk. I have a place in my heart for the man and his writing. He cares about Lebanon, knows the country better than most. But I have to be honest and say that there are days that I find his writing repetitive, that his male “let me record one more war because I am a tough journalist” perspective annoying. You have your own unique voice. Use it because that is what the world needs. Now if only I could follow my own advice.

  9. Myrthe says:

    I heard Fisk speak last year after having read some of his work and it was a great experience. He knows what he is writing about. As for your own writing: I can only repeat what the others have already told you. I am very glad you realized already that possibly not being as good as Fisk is no reason not to write your own story. You have your own voice and I think keeping that is what you should aim for.

  10. susanna says:

    I don’t know Robert Frisk but I will check him out online…and maybe he’ll have a book at our library? In any case, it’s good to pick up notes on someone you admire, how they work, little tips and insight, etc. But don’t compare yourself to someone else, M. Your story is uniquely YOURS.

  11. Di says:

    Oh I had to smile, clearly I was meant to find your blog (again) today. I heard Robert Fisk speak here in Belgium, maybe a couple of years ago and his courage and honesty stunned me. I have been following him ever since however … but have you ever tried reading him when you are flying?
    I’m not fond of flying but I do it, I love travelling so … I set out from Barcelona back to Belgium with Robert’s ‘The Great War for Civilisation – The Conquest of the Middle East’, delighted to have found it in this incredible English bookshop in Barcelona but it turns out that reading him isn’t the best thing for an uneasy flyer to do. I had to fall into a lighter more distracting book. I was ashamed but his ‘no holds barred’ approach really doesn’t go with relaxed travel 🙂
    I devoured your Gaza extract when I arrived tonight, and here I reading my way through your blog. I would read you on a plane because you get to the heart of things in a way that I love.
    That’s how it is.

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