This essay is part of a Sydney Review of Books essay series devoted to the labour of writing called Writers at Work. We’ve asked critics, essayists, poets, artists, and scholars to reflect on how writers get made and how writing gets made in the twenty-first century.
Acutely aware of each other’s prospects, we move around these bodies that inhabit us. Evasive. Pleasing. Taunting. Chasing. This is how we write. Not always together but more often than not, in the company of each other. In tow, the wriggling off-white body and glossy plume of our relations.
We are two artists, writers, publishers working under the name, A Published Event. Two years ago, we married in Canada’s Rocky Mountains. Because we could.
You put a glass of water on the table.
You think it’s doing nothing.
But it’s always looking for a way
We write from our home on stolen land in lutruwita/ Tasmania and from all the other places a prospecting maggot and crow find themselves compelled to go. And look around with intention. We have a name for this particular process of conscious roaming (and nearly every other activity too, that brings into language our specific kind of participation in and with the world around us). We call it fictiōneering. From fictiō to make-with (rather than its contemporary iteration, to make-up). In this process of speculative eventing, we use language and experience to construct new events – speculative encounters with assemblages of real people and places; theoretical and conceptual ideas; objects, images and words. We are fictiōneers. Our movements are vital, yet precarious. To fictiōneer is to bring to an eventful resolution the creative potential of these assemblages through writing.
We call this publishable assemblage, a fictiōnella. It’s somewhere between a making-with, and the literary novella. A narrative form that turns on the suspense of a single event. In our ambitious lithic bookwork, Lost Rocks (2017–21) we invite 40 artists to invest this new form of making-with lived experience, with a re-composing of absent minerals from a discarded rock board found in 2015 by the crow, in a Tasmanian tip shop. This unfolding lithic library, a series-fictiōnella, with titles like Conglomerate, Fossil, Marble, Crystal Bone, is an accumulating geological record. A library of holes.
In this five-year project, and come to think of it, all of our others, we collaborate with creatures not like us – artists, writers, rivers, geologists, cleaners, librarians, leeches, archives, parents, nonagenarians – and more. And sometimes we just write for ourselves and for each other. More often than not we want to write-with the experiences we create. We want to name them. Bring them into language. Make them public. And not so that we will remember them as moments that once touched, but rather, so that they might come to invent different ways of thinking, moving, making, feeling. The nomenclature of all this activity is critical to how we write. Its language and language-ing is how we attend and attune to complex relational fields, environments that philosopher Erin Manning refers to as a ‘lively mesh of tendencies’. These wandering bodies that support, comfort, pierce confront us are at once soft and dangerous.
By writing-with lived experience, rather than ‘inventing’ through fiction, we create publishable events recording episodes in real time, as they unfold. To work a relational field is to focus intensely on what lies between. Fieldwork is itself an erratic activity – a deliberate and intentional strategy to shift context, build new relations, and attend to a material awareness of place. It allows one to be both in and out of place at the same time. Both beak and larvae love it when this happens. The act of writing allows us to draw language through the physicality of the body. For us, this digesting takes form through writing and the subsequent maneuvering of this physical language through publishing, that is, the act of making public. As a process of research-creation, we always publish as we go. Fictiōneered into existence. The maggot steals. The crow less so.
Speaking of relational activity. Just last week we received feedback on an unsuccessful grant application from an arts funding agency, who suggested we ‘tone down’ the language, as the selection panel didn’t feel comfortable navigating our unfamiliar words. But how should we write? There is no ready-made language for the way we move together as corvid and larvae, as soft shimmer sky and wet dark earth. With rejection we know we are doing something right. Something new. Difficult. These tensions teach us how critical the language-ing of experience is to our work. The corvids have sharp and unrelenting beaks after all. And all the maggots we know, thrive in complex decay.
The maggot loves to hyphenate, extending the experience of both wor(l)ds by stretching what should not be stretched to meet what should have been let go. Letting go is so difficult to do. The crow understands this in her own way. Likes to carve her gentle words from rain and stone and waves of mist so fine they saturate with kindness. In our experience, a well-placed hyphen can save a cantilevered weight from falling.
The maggot’s imminent transformation into a thing with wings unsettles them all. The crow is older. Wiser. The maggot has a weaker heart. Yet under the watchful eye of the jet black crow it continues to beat.
It’s the one thing that nobody tells you.
How all these small things. Matter.
We are on a plane. The crow has the window seat. Cannot speak but sees it all. Tracking forward new horizons, yet always looping back to make sense of what is yet to come. Rear-viewing. Vast, broad sweeps of the stuff.
We’ve been thinking a lot about the act of prospecting lately. To prospect, writes the crow, is to conduct a mental survey; an inspection, an investigative account. In mining terms, prospecting defines a process of exploring for minerals and working (a mine) experimentally so as to test for richness. The act of prospecting involves anticipation and foresight, a search for something rare with an openness to speculation, chance, and an ability to ‘read’ the local terrain from its widest prospect down to its molecular grain. A meeting of views. Ground in bird’s eye. The meal service is about to begin.
As a technique of research-creation, prospecting combines knowing when to actively search, alongside periods of speculative waiting; paying attention to subtle ground-shifts and fault lines; applying diligence, persistence and optimism to all modes of exploration; all the while, emitting a pragmatic canniness mixed with intuition. The maggot smiles, sensing the crow’s exuberance. She can pluck a maggot right off the ground from a height of a thousand feet or more and carry it up there for miles without the slightest indentation on midriff or hindquarters. ‘We are erratics’, says the crow, as she places maggot’s glimmering pulpy flesh on unfamiliar ground, ‘conspicuously out of place whilst all the time resting precariously within it’. It’s a line from a bigger work that is the reason for our journey on this plane.
A collaborative bookwork titled Field-guiding the Erratic is taking us to the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University and the erratic boulder fields of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Maine. Erratics, those conspicuous, glacially transported boulders that differ in size and type from rocks in the area in which they come to rest. To a maggot and a crow, the erratic field is a ‘lively mesh of tendencies’. From the Latin errare to wander, we look beyond the geological foundations of the erratic, examining how conditions of ‘erratic-ness’ might also encompass unexpected events, behaviours, striations and attachments. An erraticology of sorts.
Field-working the erratic. To some it looks like aimless wandering. Roaming. Then coming to a place of rest. We are trying much harder to rest. Resting makes better writing. Already the corvid’s flows are more elongated and beautiful. The maggot takes the extra time to encase her creamy body in the world’s armour. Until it’s time to shed her words as a trail of sculptures extruded in crow’s wake.
A Black Jay slits the sky, yet nothing falls.
There are no apparent witnesses. No crime.
Just a forest full of leeches. Who see nothing.
Still the maggots gorge.
This text includes extracts taken from Fall of the Derwent, 2016, a public art commission by Glenorchy Art & Sculpture Park, Tasmania. Fall of the Derwent is published as a fluctuating hydrographic score here and as a 96pp digital webpress case-bound, graphite-covered book in an edition of 100 copies.
This Writers at Work essay has been funded by Arts Tasmania. This stage of the series has also been funded by Arts Queensland and Creative Victoria.