When I was a child in the 1960s I read extensively – from classic set authors such as Shakespeare and Dickens to the adventure and escapist literature of R.L. Stevenson, Arthur Ransome and P.C. Wren – but I never felt I’d be able to make up stories like that myself and become a writer; it seemed all too impossible. Then at the end of my teens and into my early twenties I became immersed in the works of Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, and I learnt about the network of personalities that made up the Beat scene. More so than most writers, Kerouac was fashioning ‘fiction’ out of real events, using characters that were merely flimsily disguised versions of his friends and acquaintances. The plots, the epic dimensions given to his adventures, amounted to a kind of self-imposed meta-perspective due to the fact he was, of course, aware of himself as a writer gathering material as he lived through them, designing them as he went.
By now the ’70s were well underway, and at the same time as I was absorbing Beat culture I was developing ‘adventures’ of my own, many of them ‘pharmo-picaresque’ in nature, involving LSD, magic mushrooms, cannabis and the inevitable madcap high jinks that accompany getting high. Naturally enough my guiding lights were novels such as On the Road, where marijuana and Benzedrine use becomes head fuel for corresponding dashes across the landscape; or The Dharma Bums, where Zen Buddhist teachings are reinvented as a hip ‘religion’ for the cool and contemporary; or Burroughs’ Junkie, which like De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, describes a philosophy drawn from deep immersion in drug use. And when I came eventually to regard myself as a writer, it was in part down to a realisation that I didn’t need to invent all that much, merely to transcribe and perhaps embroider my own experiences whilst moulding them into stories.
Perhaps weed does affect the brain with constant use, or maybe teaheads are naturally silly – William Burroughs, Junkie
Having completed four years at art college, studying painting, photography and film, I reached the next stage of the life/art equation when I was trying to write my first novel – Geometric Progression, based on my psychedelic adventures – and I had two highly positively charged mushroom trips close to one another. The mushrooms propelled me onto an exalted plane where I felt I’d achieved enlightenment and solved life’s fundamental mystery. Moreover, they spontaneously changed the nature of my novel by rebooting my creativity into the ‘Eternal Present’, and I had to begin again at this prime moment, living the enlightened life and recording my actions in a new novel that would unfurl like a carpet at my feet, involving the pure truth without artifice or embellishment. As the second trip progressed, I saw myself leading a movement based on this principle, and I dubbed it ‘The Cult of the Novel’ and conjectured scores of disciples living out their own novels similarly. With messianic zeal, I set about communicating the message to friends whilst writing down their reactions, and I titled the new novel The Mad Artist, which became a catch-all term for this particular brand of literary mania and also an ‘avatar’ name for myself.
After coming down to earth somewhat, I spent the next couple of years writing and working intermittently in television, before getting a full time job which left me with less time to write. Simultaneously I penned various versions of the old more conventional novel, Geometric Progression, and also kept up with The Mad Artist, where I recorded ongoing significant events in the Eternal Present. Neither novel worked out very successfully. In the former, the real-life events didn’t reach a satisfactory climax, and my attempts to bolt on a fictional one floundered. And in the latter, the Eternal Present became progressively less and less epoch-making, and the resulting text more and more directionless and ultimately pointless.
Time passed, I slipped deeper into the trench of my demanding position in TV production, and the dream of becoming a proper writer slowly deflated. By now I’d reached my late twenties – often a tricky point in life where youthfulness and its privileges are palpably draining, and what lies ahead appears much less inviting. I’d always had problems with mild anxiety, OCD and paranoia, but now they began to get worse and much more out of control. I found myself sucked into an existential vortex where there seemed no escape from this inevitable downturn in my mental state, and I feared I was destined for a full scale crash. More and more I became haunted by the self-fulfilling notion that I was cracking up.
Life is first boredom, then fear – Philip Larkin, ‘Dockery and Son’
There were many factors underpinning this state, and they were indefinitely synergetic, so it isn’t right to pinpoint any single one as the culprit; but at the forefront of my mind it was my perceived failure to become the writer I’d wanted to be – and by extrapolation my failure at life itself – that loomed large. I never had the total crash I feared, and after consulting my doctor I became a user of that most wonderful of drugs diazepam, and I began to manage my condition. A few years on, in my early thirties, I was ready for the next stage – psychotherapy – where I would plumb those weird existential spaces in a more organised and systematic way, with another person.
I hadn’t given up on writing, of course, and in the meantime I’d tried other avenues of the craft – short stories, screenplays and fantasy-based novels – and though there had been no dramatic breakthrough, I felt I was learning more and gaining in competence. The onset of therapy marked a double reboot, for I was not only going to turn my life around, I was also beginning a new drawn-from-life fictional project. In the manner of the earlier mushroom-inspired work The Mad Artist, I would record what transpired blow by blow, and also revisit the past, and this time it would work because the goals were more focused and achievable – the solving of the riddle of my malaise and the attainment of health. Also I had abandoned the earlier rule about following reality faithfully; I would fictionalise as I progressed, using the events as guidelines only. The last thing I wanted in this new work, titled The Empty Chair, was for anyone to think it was about me!
The project went well for a time. I grappled with my issues in therapy and in a parallel world ‘Steve Penhaligon’, my alter ego, had issues that were related but not at all the same. Then the therapy fizzled out and I was left feeling neither fully ‘cured’ nor in possession of enough material to enable The Empty Chair to attain critical mass. It was another failure, or at least a big setback, but I was older and more stable now and after a brief crisis I simply soldiered on, getting used to failure – ‘failing better’ as Beckett would say.
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better – Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho
After another fallow period I decided once and for all to abandon this semi-autobiographical method of generating fiction and instead make up proper narratives from scratch that were not directly modelled on personal experience. I felt drawn towards the ghoulish and the macabre, and I penned noir tales of mayhem, murder and madness that drew to an extent on the internal horrors I’d confronted in therapy, which were mirrored prismatically in the world at large. I got in with the British horror/fantasy/crime fiction set, attended conventions and rubbed shoulders with writers such as Peter James and Kim Newman, plus scores of other excellent but lesser-known practitioners of the art, such as the sadly recently deceased fantasy author Graham Joyce. I had several horror stories published in small press magazines and also wrote related articles, book and film reviews. Now on a roll, I completed a horror/crime novel in the same mould as the stories but failed to find a publisher.
Later on I realised I simply wasn’t cut out to be that kind of a writer, though I enjoyed mingling with the horror set, and I could count this phase as an even better failure – in fact a partial success. For if I never got my name rendered in gold embossed letters on black shiny covers (’80s-’90s-style), I did establish myself as a non-fiction writer and I continued to pen articles and reviews for magazines, and later webzines, from that time on till the present.
However, wheels turn, things go in and out of fashion and cycles repeat themselves, albeit with new developmental layers incorporated. As more life experience accrued, some of it filling ‘holes’ in the ‘plots’ of long abandoned works – such as a second, more conclusive tranche of psychotherapy – an idea was steadily generating: to return to writing about my life a more literal way, once again…
A new iteration of The Empty Chair would incorporate all the later material that made the story work and lent it critical mass, and moreover this would be a meta-story, highlighting my attempts to capture the story as a part of the story. So here was the special ingredient, the X factor that made it different from a straight narrative, and also I realised I was returning to the original principle of ‘The Cult of the Novel’ — the self-aware recording of true life as it’s lived — and in a way I’d been doing that all along, unconsciously. So the meta context is everything — the non-ordinary angle, the metaphorical equivalent of the psychedelic perspective — that hopefully sets The Empty Chair apart from being just another routine therapy story.
As soon as that idea crystallised in my mind another followed on seamlessly. I would precede The Empty Chair narrative with another, based on the two partial novels about my psychedelic drug experiences, fusing all the material together and making ‘The Cult of the Novel’ revelation the climax of the whole rather than a new beginning. Immediately I knew it would work. In dispensing with the old novelistic boundaries and viewing everything as a oneness, plus the benefit of considerable hindsight, I could see where the stories really began and ended. Naturally I would title this other narrative The Mad Artist, and with its action locked in the 1970s, now a historical era, it would become a nostalgic recapitulation of bygone halcyon days.
When I came to write The Mad Artist, I made a fortuitous discovery about how well the new structure worked in relation to ‘The Cult of the Novel’ idea. Towards the end, the narrator becomes increasingly self-aware as the progenitor of a text, and the final chapter is a meta-chapter representing the actual novel he’s living and writing as he goes along.
At the very end I fashioned a trick to the effect that the book being created turns into the very one the reader is holding in his or her hands – lived-out novel and memoir become one in a never ending literary Möbius strip. It was a very neat and satisfying way of tying everything together that resonated well with the original vision.
There is more business in interpreting interpretations than in interpreting things, and more books on books than on any other subject – Montaigne, Essays
And in working on The Empty Chair, this whole ‘watching yourself writing’ process took yet another turn. A third work suggested itself, happening as I write, happening as you read, which takes the meta-story on from the action of The Empty Chair to some as yet undetermined point in the future. Covering the creation of the definitive versions of The Mad Artist and The Empty Chair, this new work will in fact be a meta examination of the meta examination…
And yes, in this respect I’m aware that I could conceivably end up like Caden Cotard, the character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Charlie Kaufman’s surreal masterpiece Synecdoche, New York. In this movie, theatre director Caden starts rehearsing an epic production based on his own life, which as it progresses reaches the point in life where he started the production, requiring another set of actors to play the people playing himself and his colleagues, which in turn leads inexorably to a never ending succession of doppelgängers and Chinese box sets filling New York.
Which reminds me… In my late childhood, the family went on a weekend outing to the model village at Bourton-on-the-Water in the Cotswolds. It is a particularly fine example of the art, comparatively large and extensive at one ninth scale and very carefully crafted with exquisite attention to detail. It took five years to build, back in the 1930s. Now because the model village stands within the actually village, it naturally has to include a model of itself, and in turn this model has a model and so on. When I encountered this phenomenon at the age of eleven or twelve, I was enchanted and inspired – this was the kind of thing I loved, where mathematics (point three, recurring) meets the world of plastic creation. As I stared down the tunnel of model villages, conjecturing an infinity that was beyond rendering, I had a kind of proto-psychedelic revelation, a sense I was touching some ineffable mystery about life, the cosmos, all that jazz. Decades later I have my own collection of model lives.
In pondering this phenomenon and how it relates to myself, my ‘mad artistry’ and ‘The Cult of the Novel’ mushroom revelation thirty-five years ago, together with the detailed psychological introspection I’m undergoing writing The Empty Chair, I coined the term ‘autofictionalisation personality disorder’ and defined it as follows: the act of leading one’s life as though it is the provider of material for ongoing ‘novels’. Is it a pathology or is that simply my conceit? All writers do it to some extent, and to go back to an extreme case, dear old Jack Kerouac, my literary forebear – who incidentally was born in the same year as my actual father – it all ended badly for him: premature death due to chronic alcoholism. So perhaps the compulsive nature of the tendency can manifest in other addictions.
An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself – Albert Camus, Carnets
Certainly autofictionalisation personality disorder is a defence, a retreat into a kind of looking-glass-reality-fantasy world, which like all defences is a bulwark against unbearable truth. But is it unhealthy in itself? It doesn’t incur physical damage like substance abuse, or economic damage like gambling addiction, and it doesn’t affect the rights or freedoms of those close to the ‘sufferer’. So if it is a vice, it’s pretty good as vices go.
I like to think that my particular self-referential take, holding the parallel mirrors together, is an artistic reflection of the observer effect in physics, where the very act of trying measure values affects the results. That effect, of course, has general truth, a fact which renders terms such as ‘reality TV’ oxymoronic. In all forms of art we are still burrowing further into the postmodernist rabbit hole, and perhaps that journey will never end, or will come back on itself and form a loop, a spiral, an infinite regression or expansion. Whatever, like Caden Cotard or the creators of that model village, I just cannot resist the allure of meta-ness to the nth power. See you on the flipside of that Möbius strip!
All photos apart from the movie still & magazine cover © Roger Keen