Home > cultural commentary, fiction, humor, Process and technique > On being and doing: becoming an author (and a story)

On being and doing: becoming an author (and a story)

Over the last few days I’ve managed to get embroiled in some discussions about whether someone can describe themselves as an ‘author’ if they haven’t in fact published anything, or possibly even written anything.

The question is probably only really of interest to those who are aspiring authors who haven’t yet written much or published anything (though ‘publish’ in this internet age is itself a slippery concept, with self-publication, vanity publishers, blogs and other ways to get writing in front of potential readers).

There are parallels, though – the aspiring musician who hasn’t quite ‘made it’ in terms of regular gigs or a recording contract, the artist who has yet to do anything with their work other than leave it under the bed or in the attic, even the carpenter who hasn’t yet made anything out of wood.

And if there are parallels, there are also – what should we call them? Divergents? Perpendiculars? There are plenty of labels that have more moral force and are applied to someone’s entire social identity on the basis of an act that took maybe a minute or two – murderer, for example. There probably are people out there who might be described as ‘aspiring murderers’ or ‘murderers in waiting’ (I’ve known one or two people who might fit that description) but I don’t think it’s a term in common use. Certainly not as common as ‘aspiring author’, anyway. Which is probably a good thing.

(On a side note: I seem to remember Jake Arnott’s novel He Kills Coppers having a character who might be described as a ‘serial murderer in training’. In any event it’s a good book, well worth the read. There’s also plenty of sociological work on labels and how they’re used but it’s not entirely relevant to this discussion…)

Beyond that, it’s a niche philosophical question about the slipperiness of labels, the relation between doing and being, between intent and achievement. Very often, the advice offered to ‘aspiring’ authors is that they should ‘act as if’ – and in acting out the intent, the accomplishment gradually slips into reality.

What follows is a short piece of fiction. Probably.


John Undescribe (1952-2011) – the best writer you never read?

John Undescribe, one of the most talked-about yet mysterious authors of his generation, was found dead in his apartment last week. The cause of death is described as ‘accidental’ but no details have yet been released.

His writing career began at university. Though not a member of any student societies he participated in several ‘performance art’ projects, reading poetry and stories at events that often included a mix of dance, music, light projection, fire-breathing and large remote-controlled robots. None of this work was ever published. It is possible it was improvised.

Those who recall them say that they were emotionally moving, though frequently only semi-audible due to the nature of the performances. ‘They had a dreamlike quality,’ said one of his contemporaries who delined to be named. ‘They were like random phrases from some great, lost book of forbidden knowledge.’

Through most of his life, Undescribe lived in a cluttered, rented apartment within easy reach of The Foolscap, a bar favoured by many writers and poets. Regulars there remember him as a lively conversationalist with a sharp insight into contemporary social issues, whose off-the-cuff remarks could easily become the first lines of novels. Judging by the number of works in which he received dedications or other mentions, many of his comments have, in fact, become the first lines of novels by others. He has been described as ‘inspirational’ and ‘the greatest unknown writer of our time.’

He was retiscent about the details of his own writing, though was often prepared to discuss the underlying arguments, philosophical positions, or plot devices. Of his first novel he is reputed to have said ‘Publishers will hate it: it reads like a mystery writer’s second novel.’ He said he wouldn’t send it to a publisher until another novel by him had been released first.

That novel were a long time coming. In 1994, Undescribe was heard to remark in the bar that he’d written ‘three quarters of a million words, about a hundred thousand of which would be a novel – it’s just a case of which hundred thousand.’

At that time, however, poststructuralism had come into prominence. ‘The book’s finished,’ he announced one evening in the Foolscap bar. ‘But in the current climate, there’s no longer any point in getting it published. It addresses concerns no longer relevant to our understanding of what writing is.’

Instead he began work on another novel, also hewn from his massive manuscript. ‘The secret is in my name,’ he said. ‘Language has a complex relationship to reality because it constitutes what we see as reality. And it’s a recursive relationship, because our idea of language itself and what it can do is also constituted in that reality. We don’t have myths any more, we have fictions that are plastic and disposable. I no longer want to describe the world – even a world in which ships dream furiously of green translations. I want to undescribe it.’ (The reference to ‘ships dreaming furiously’ is probably a partial nod to George Steiner’s After Babel).

Other projects followed, including a cycle of short stories, allegedly translated into a mystical language of Undescribe’s own devising so that he could back-translate it into a finished product. In his last few years Undescribe appeared to move away from writing to focus on the impact of the spoken word. He would sometimes recite lengthy sections said to come from his works to acquaintences in the bar, to reactions varying from incomprehension to ecstacy.

Most notably, on one occasion he was credited with literally hypnotizing the entire bar, causing those present to believe for several days that they were in fact characters in one of Undescribe’s novels. None of those present knew the plots of the novel involved, though there was subsequent speculation that the novel would in fact be based on how the individuals concerned acted. Undescribe commented on occasion that truth was often stranger than fiction, because our imaginations are often limited by what we see as real: remove those limits and we can re-make the truth in strange ways.

Undescribe had no partner or children. If he left a will it is entirely likely to be contested on the basis that it is a work of fiction and not a legal document. A search of his apartment revealed many books, some rare and valuable, but no personal paper and no manuscripts of any description. It is unclear whether these ever existed, except perhaps in Undescribe’s own imagination. He is, on the basis of his contemporaries’ comments, perhaps the best writer whose works you will never be able to read.

  1. February 6, 2011 at 10:38 pm

    Let us say, ‘A writer has another source of income. An author, squats on his words and pays his bills with royalties.’

    John Undescribe??? Poignant name. Sounds like a likable fellow. Pity I can’t read his work.

  2. February 6, 2011 at 11:53 pm

    Thanks for the post. Food for thought there… it sounds likes a quote, but if not it certainly should be.

    I think I’d have liked to read Undescribe’s books too…

    • February 7, 2011 at 1:34 pm

      Thanks. If I quoted someone else, I’d certainly give them credit. 😉

      • February 7, 2011 at 1:53 pm

        I think you just created a quotable quote then!

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