‘Testamentalism’ or Finding Your Voice

My guest this week is Ken Rolph, who lives in Blacktown, Australia and is the author of Dog Tales.

He studied and worked at Macquarie University in science and later did computer work with large Australian companies. All along the way he wrote whenever he was able, for whatever outlets presented themselves. Then, having reached that fabulous place of wonder and delight, the Year 2000, he stopped and looked around. The kids were grown up, the major expenses paid.

He became an ex rat and retired from the race, setting out on a quest to see if he could write something worthwhile. His program of personal review and renovation has resulted in a collection of short writings, published as Dog Tales. If you ask him the serious question (what do you do?) he is likely to answer, “I contemplate the essence of things.”

by Ken Rolph

When I was but a lad and deciding to become a writer, I looked forward to the time when I would have mastered it all. The words would flow easily and without problems. I would find my authentic voice, my unique contribution. I would master both the craft and theart. Some time, when I got older.

Now I’m here and it doesn’t seem to work that way. Every piece of writing starts with that blank empty page. Sure, some things do get conquered. But new things crop up. There are problems that occur towards the end of a career as well as at the beginning. I’ve begun to appreciate that there are temptations and trials for the older writer.

The obvious one might be review and regret. We look back on our writing life and think about all the things we did and didn’t write. Missed opportunities. Laziness and slackness. Insufficient volume of production. I recognise this, but I’m not suffering from it. All this year I’ve had a severe case of Not Quite Dead yet and am not willing to close the book on myself. But when you get to the point in your life where you no longer measure how far you’ve come, but how far you have to go, what you do takes on a more urgent significance. That’s the trap I think is waiting for me. I’m going to call it Testamentalism. It’s the urge to deliver final, meaningful, significant statements about the Meaning of Life for the Edification of Future Generations. Now, sure, we do a bit of that all the time.

But I’ve been looking at the careers of several artists and can see a pattern. The earlier works are exploratory, light, episodic, lively. The later works become ponderous with Grand Statements. Characters disappear into Types and Archetypes.

I’ve been thinking about this for some time. A while back I bought a copy of the Eagles’ Long Road Out of Eden. It’s impressive. I enjoyed it. I appreciated it. The very last song is titled “It’s Your World Now.” It’s about passing over the world into the hands of a new generation. Which is what we have to do. The real thing about the Eagles’ album is that it is an Eagles’ album. It’s not really testamental. Part of the temptation is to do something different to what you have done in the past. As if what you did before was not what you really wanted to say. There can be a sudden lack of continuity in the art. A kind of desperation and resorting to the past and to “meaningful” art forms. It’s a bit hard to convey what I have in mind in regards to writers. You have to know their whole body of work. It might make more sense if I offer a few musical examples.

There are two CDs I’ve bought lately. Oddly, they are connected with a single song: Ain’t No Grave. The first is Tom Jones Praise and Blame. If you get a chance to listen to it you should understand what I mean by Testamentalism. I find the album quite hard to listen to. For me it doesn’t quite ring true. The other CD is Johnny Cash American VI: Ain’t No Grave. This is also an album made with finality in view. But it works because it is not a radical departure from Cash’s earlier work. It’s more of a fulfillment, a summing up, a full flowering. It brings not high art but profound art. The very last song is titled “Aloha Oe.” It’s Hawaiian in tone, but part of it is an instrumental riff. I found myself unexpectedly singing along to this as I recognised an old hymn, which goes “Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to Thee, how great Thou art, how great Thou art”. I’m sure that’s what it is, I’m sure it’s meant to be there.

So what am I going to do (aside from playing current music from the dead and dying artists of my youth)? My writing so far is mostly short, comic, light, domestic. I believe I need to go longer and more serious. But I don’t want to lose the tone that has come to be my own voice. Can I do this? Will being aware of the temptations to become ponderous and stuffy enable me to avoid this? I think that’s what I’ll have to try.

Dog tales aren’t just about dogs. Dog tales don’t pretend to be anything more than what they are: short tales about the everyday stuff of life. Whatever is happening in your life you can turn it into a dog tale. In this collection, there are tales about husbands & wives, pantries, tools, rats, pelicans, takeaways and compost, as well as an assortment of dogs. Dog Tales is an affectionate and humorous snapshot of life. http://www.buyaustralianbooks.com.au/book/kenrolph/dogtales/

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Published in: on April 21, 2012 at 9:18 pm  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I do have some idea what you mean. Having reached the age of 60, I am feeling like I haven’t really accomplished much in the way of writing. I’ve written a bunch of articles and short things, but nothing that would outlast me. I want to spend time working on things that really matter. And yet, I am not lucky enough to be retired yet–still have over five years to go–and work keeps getting in the way of “writing something important.” I feel frustration at times, particularly as my husband recently retired and I see him devoting his time to music and art and feeling very fulfilled. And here I am, still earning a living in an area related to writing, but not at all the kind of writing I want to be doing. I fit in what I can and try to be patient. And hope that the little things I do at least have some meaning…

  2. Some of us would give anything for that comic tone, Ken. I believe we work to our strengths. That doesn’t mean we won’t experiment and branch out though. I’ll be interested to see what comes next from you. I loved Dog Tales.

  3. Way to go, Ken. I love the wittiness and humour that creeps into your writing, even when you don’t necessarily mean it. (Or so I think!) Thanks for sharing. As for that blog of your own . . . blogger.com. SO easy. Come on. I dare you.


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