H.T.R. Williams is a Dunedin writer whose work has been praised for its flare, sensitivity and painterly eye for detail. His essay Angel of Reshaping: Fifteen Years of Alienation is a probing and gutsy look at his own psychosis and recovery.
Hayden, would you say a little about writing this essay — what it meant to you?
Angel of Reshaping was about coming to terms with dark and very difficult times in my life, I see it very much in that mythic way, going into the underworld, the chaos of the unconscious and being completely overwhelmed by it and pulled out of everyday life into that inner world -- but the discovery is that it has transformed me, I've come out the other side of it and made art out of it too. Learning to write has enabled this channel between the two worlds of that turbulent inner life of imagination, which can be dark and scary but also rich and colourful, and an outer form, being able to express things in words and construct narratives over whole novels etc.
Writing for me is like driving a road at night and only seeing as far as the reach of headlights but knowing and trusting that the whole journey and town and people ahead are already there and just need to be brought to life, discovered. I'm often amazed when this whole pattern emerges as if by itself, which I didn't consciously intend when writing, and though it seems like chaos or maybe nonsense at first there's ultimately some ordering wisdom or magic at work, and my experience with psychosis has been the same. I've suffered a lot through it but it's not tragic at all because it's made my life meaningful and it's helped me to heal as well.
I've observed that the troubles, migrations and dissolutions repeating in my own life and mind seemed to reflect the friction and fragmentation happening everywhere, in the displacement of peoples and communities, the breakdown of relationships, families, social institutions, and structures of all kinds with the exception of class division, which only seemed to be solidifying into more definite, imprisoning strata, fossilising the abilities, hopes, dignity and independence of many thousands in what was beginning to be called an ‘underclass.’
I don’t believe I was experiencing this correspondence between inner and outer worlds through some solipsistic fantasy. Rather, as a mentally ill friend suggested shortly before committing suicide, the psyches of those prone to psychosis are perhaps more susceptible to external influences in the same way that frogs, with the thin partitions of their more permeable skins, are more susceptible to poisons in the environment. I’d already felt oppressed and sickened by the atmosphere in South Wales under Thatcher and John Major. The same social ills were arriving here. New Zealand’s opportunity to do something original and not repeat the same ugly mistakes was diminishing. An atomistic, self-serving culture had been advanced, and consequently we’d begun to care less about each other, to our own detriment. In writing this I was musing on the origins of both individual and collective breakdown.
Are there writers you draw on for encouragement or inspiration?
Carl Jung. R.S. Thomas for honestly nutting out the quandaries of his faith, condensing his thinking so concisely. Thomas Merton for the way he writes about abstract subjects with such clarity. James Kelman and Saul Bellow for their compassion and humour.
What are your current writing challenges?
Trying to find a conventional publisher for my first novel. Unlikely.
What is delighting you?
The avant garde, imported faux ceiling mold in my nouveau-retro tormented artist’s garret. My first conversations in Welsh.
What's in the pipeline for you in 2014
Hopefully writing a fourth book.
Thanks, Hayden. It's been a great experience, working with you and the Angel. May your readers be many and riveted.