Saturday, January 13, 2007

Gene Genie




















This is my great, great grandfather Laurence Hynes Halloran painted by Augustus Earle around 1825. He was by all accounts a bit of rebel, being transported to Sydney in 1819 for forgery. It was either a relatively minor offence or he quickly charmed people in high places because he was granted a ‘ticket of leave’ and a parcel of land shortly after arrival in the colonies. I didn’t actually find out that I was related to Halloran until fairly recently. My grandmother had made the unwelcome discovery in 1972 that the man she’d called Dad wasn’t her real father and so the information went underground until it resurfaced in the form of a photocopied letter a couple of years ago.

Halloran was a minor Victorian poet whose work is generally considered ‘mediocre’. He published four volumes of poetry and a play in England before the involuntary migration to Australia. He was also a progressive educationalist and a chaplain in the British Navy. He was aboard the Britannia during the Battle of Trafalgar. One day I’ll write a book about him but that isn’t the reason he popped into my mind today. I have been reading an article in Mslexia which superficially explores the notion that writing is ‘in the genes’. Mslexia is an extremely infuriating magazine and one day soon I’ll get around to cancelling my subscription to it along with a superfluous accident insurance policy that I’ve been meaning to discontinue for years.

The Mslexia article, which lazily unpacks its premise by asking a few authors from writing dynasties and a few whose antecedents were dentists and grave diggers what they thought, reached no conclusion whatever but did start me thinking. In addition to his bad poetry and chronic scallywagging, Halloran started a satirical magazine in Sydney called The Gleaner and was eventually impoverished by the constant barrage of libel actions. He clearly had issues with authority and it was nice for me to finally have someone to blame for my tendency towards rebellion in the face of orthodoxy. I’m rather proud of the fact that I’m descended from a well known shit stirrer. That he was a bad poet is less pleasing to identify with.

In my family, the arts were never considered a legitimate source of occupation and I often wonder whether there may have been a gender agenda going on. Since I have no brothers, it’s a blind alley even to consider it. Mslexia is an uncomfortable reminder that there are all sorts of weird psychologies knitted into writing that simply don’t invade other professions or even art forms. The most pronounced of these is that writing is some sort of therapy. Mslexia bills itself as a publication ‘for women who write’, as if it were an affliction rather than an activity.

Of course my growing irritation with Mslexia could be just that they have rejected every piece of congenitally bad poetry I’ve ever sent them. It could also be that I never like any of the ‘new writing’ they feature. That’s always baffled me – ‘new writing’ – what is that about? Imagine the New Yorker saying it featured ‘new writing’. Every magazine publishes original work which is, by definition ‘new’ – what would be the point of their existence otherwise? Annoying.

I hate all the pointless Blue Peter style writing exercises like this one in the current issue,

To freshen your poems, try applying some of the principles of expository writing (i.e. writing that makes an argument). [That explanation was really necessary, right??] Choose an expository form (a recipe, an advert, a set of instructions) and apply it to a subject it wouldn’t normally be used for (remembering the past, mourning a death, bringing up a child, coping with the menopause).

Who would do that? Wouldn’t slitting your wrists while listening to Morrissey’s greatest hits be more fulfilling? This magazine is obsessed with domesticity and the struggle to fit in little bits of writing between loads of washing and baking. Contributors are always creative writing teachers with four children/cats/both who listen to Radio 4 and write for five hours a week after they’ve finished the housework. Yeuchh.

It’s not that I find women’s experiences unsuitable subjects for art. I love that Tracey Emin transformed the female craft of needlework into a mainstream art form. What I don’t like is the collusion with self-doubt and personal sacrifice which is assumed that every woman must overcome in some kind of rite of passage to earn legitimacy as a wordsmith. Would you have to ‘give yourself permission’ to become a doctor or accountant? I don’t think so.

The decision to dissolve my long relationship with Mslexia has taken much longer than it should have. I always wanted to like the magazine but now I can see that it serves no useful purpose except to showcase the work of women who have taken creative writing courses and graduated to teaching them. Why is it called ‘creative’ writing anyway? Is there such a thing as creative painting or creative composing? There’s something creepily self-improvementy about it. Sussex University has a MA course called Creative Writing and Personal Development. What are the course books? Louise L Hay’s You Can Heal Your Syntax and Robin Norwood’s Women Who Write Too Much? Is there a Civil Engineering and Personal Development MA? Enough.

I don’t know if there is a writing gene. I do know that I would like to get to know my ancestor a lot better, bad poet or not. I like to think that if he lived today, he might have a blog much like this one. Now he’s out of the bottle, there’ll be no recanting him…

22 comments:

Ms Melancholy said...

Ms Pants, I have laughed and then some more. I do think you should send them a copy of this to print in their lovely magazine, and then please sit down to start work on 'Women Who Write Too Much'.

Just one point to take issue on:

'Wouldn’t slitting your wrists while listening to Morrissey’s greatest hits be more fulfilling?'

Please don't mock my hobbies....

That's so pants said...

Divine Ms M. I do apologise for the open wound thing. You know about vitamin E cream right? (You smear it across Morrissey CDs rendering them unplayable - works just as well with vinyl). Mslexia, despite its infuriating and multifarious flaws is not averse to printing letters offering it fundamental criticism of its reason d'ete. There are two in this issue. There are clearly women for whom it is a valued resource. I was just never one of those women who struggled to find her voice. Mine has always been distastefully loud. It isn't the mag for me but I think they already know what women like me think. A boyfriend once said to me they should write a book about you called 'Women who hardly love at all'. I think that is the one I should write. One day...

andie said...

Yes, send them a copy, or better - submit an article. I'm relishing all you say here. They didn't like my poems either, and I've got a cat and children and guess what I'm a creative writing teacher (who has given Blue Peter exercises), so I can't think what went wrong.
I won't be cancelling my subscription - just yet, because there's nothing else around.
Haven't "logged" so

That's so pants said...

Hi Andie. Are there any toes out there that I haven't stepped on with this piece? Hey, it's a genetic fault and I can't do anything about it. Mslexia is very aware of who its ever-growing audience is and gives them what they want. It's my mistake really for assuming that being a woman and a writer is the same as being a 'woman who writes' which it clearly is not in my case. Cancelling the subscription will solve the problem as I don't feel aggrieved or misled in any way.

Ms Melancholy said...

I'm sure there are women who find the magazine useful. I think you make a very valid point, however, about the 'collusion of women who write with self-doubt and personal sacrifice'. It is a psuedo-feminist approach which portrays women as martyrs to their sex (I hesitate to use the 'victim' word) and somehow perpetuates the notion that we inherently neglect our own interests. At best it doesn't do us any favours and at worst it heaps more pressure on those of us who are actually pretty good at prioritising ourselves. I won't go on, you say it much better than I do. But I seriously think you should write an article for them on this issue. And while you are at it, could you also send it to 'Psychologies' magazine and Cosmo-bloody-politan?

PS. the self-harm bit was a joke. I think you probably know that but in a flurry of defensiveness I feel compelled to point it out. And I shall certainly not be sabotaging my Morrissey CDs. I love him with a passion, as well you know x

Reading the Signs said...

Blood will out, Ms P - rock on and keep steppin'!

THE PERIODIC ENGLISHMAN said...

I actually feel rather dazed by that. This was a beautifully constructed masterpiece that leaves me simpering with love and envy. The love is directed (with fever and fervour) at your thought patterns and your ability to get them out there. And the envy - well, let's not sour these happy moments.

And to hold it all together like that? Staggering. It's not just that some of it was good, either - ALL of it was. Too many touches of brilliance for a full and breathless critique here, but amongst many other things that made me laugh was this.....

"There’s something creepily self-improvementy about it...."

There is, and you nailed it. Marry me.

The Moon Topples said...

This is a fantastic post. Although I am (thankfully, I imagine) unfamiliar with the publication, I found myself chuckling throughout and nodding my head in agreement with your points.

What you seem to have done here is taken expository writing (i.e. writing that makes an argument) and applied it to a subject it wouldn't normally be used for (reading or subscribing to magazines.).

On the strength of this writing and your blog's excellent subhead, I felt I had no choice but to link you from my blog.

I'll be back for more...

That's so pants said...

Hi Signs - When I look at the portrait of my ancestor I can see aspects of my late father. I find that comforting. I will do as you suggest, with pleasure.

That's so pants said...

Mr PE. Grand of you to say so. Re offer of marriage

1. I believe I have agreed to marry Groucho provided certain pre-conditions can be met.

2. I seem to remember that relationships with you involve carrying all your luggage. I don't do luggage.

Nice to be asked though.

That's so pants said...

Mr Topples - A very warm welcome to you and thank you for your kind comments. The funny thing is that I thought this post was kind of mediocre (like my ancestor's poetry don't you know). Just goes to show that one is no judge of one's own work, what? Thanks for the link too. I will visit you just as soon as I've had my tea. Cheers.

That's so pants said...

Ms M - One thing that has always intrigued me is the esteem in which Mslexia is held by women writers (as opposed to 'women who write'). This phenomenon has been a real factor for me in sticking with the magazine for as long as I did. I think if Wendy Cope or Selima Hill is judging the poetry competition, then it must be prestigious, right? What am I missing?

nmj said...

Hey TSP, Just to say I totally agree with your thoughts on Mslexia, I cancelled my subscription a few years ago, shortly after joining, I found it dull as hell, and the Blue Peter approach patronising.

That's so pants said...

Hi NMJ and welcome. Yeah - I guess it either works for you or it doesn't.

Ms Melancholy said...

What I love about this post is that you pick up on something that is quite subtle and just a bit slippery to grasp. I know that there are many women who probably do have to fit their writing in amongst feeding the children and doing their day job. Also, writing is a very solitary, individualistic pursuit and I think women have traditionally found it hard to 'justify'any solitary pursuits. I can understand why such magazines might feel the need to link women writing with 'personal development' and self-esteem etc etc. (I know I am conflating some of the facts here, but bear with me....) The problem is when this is the *only* discourse within which we discuss 'women writers', as it serves to actually perpetuate it rather than dismantle it, albeit in a very subtle way. I think this is what you have so cleverly picked up on.

That's so pants said...

Yeah. I didn't realise that's where it was going but you are right and I think it does deserve a little bit more R&D on my part. I am sure lots of scholarly people have written on it. I will pursue.

kris said...

cool!

Caroline said...

Fantastic.
I'm a woman, I write, I have 3 kids, I work and I have 2 cats. I don't subscribe to any writing magazines, but I do subscribe to Cosmo ;-0

I am of the opinion that if you want to write, well you get on with it and do it. No point in following rules. Stop the moaning, leave the household chores to pile up around your ears and get on with it. AND ... while I'm starting my rant ... if you can't be original, then there's no point. Writing by numbers fills me with dread. I don't like rules and I never read instructions.

Your post is worthy of a link from Ms M and it filled me with creative juices. Thanks x

That's so pants said...

Caroline - I like you, rebel!

Rachel said...

Ah ha ha ha. Also found you via Mrs M. I ma sure Mslexia *means well* but grrr...In my mind I have already decided what Mslexia is like, and I am wondering if it is going to spin-off and do one of those part-work mag series things where you can write your own menopause epic over 24 weeks with free knitting patterns for a matching 'Moon Goddess' jumper.

Cheryl said...

Hadnt heard of Mslexia before, and although you bever meant this to happen, because of your post I very nearly signed up just to see how awful, for myself.
I was rescued by noticing the magazine 'about' page spelled Corinne (Bailey Rae) wrong,..
twice,...
two different ways.
Phew, close call.

P.S. What did he forge?

That's so pants said...

Hi Cheryl - Mmm. Class will out. I actually subscribed to Mslexia for about five years and I did always read the magazine but found the 'struggling to find your voice' aspect of if more and more annoying. I was like, get OVER yourself, yeah? According to his Wikipedia entry (now you are definitely class if your ancestor has a Wiki, right?) Laurence Hynes Halloran was transported for forging 'a frank worth ten pence', to which he pleaded guilty.