I’ve been spending some time recently at The Really Free School in London, which is one of the greatest responses imaginable to the announcement of rising tuition fees: squat Guy Ritchie’s (empty) £6m Fitzrovia mansion and open its doors as a free centre of education, where people can learn everything from Foucault to life drawing to internet piracy for beginners. On their website last week they posted a manifesto written by a classroom of nine and ten year olds. It contained some of the greatest poetry I’ve ever read, including;
All property developers will report to the roof for training in building in the clouds
Cheese will be small and humans will be cheerful
I find manifestos gripping. Not the meek-mouthed efforts our parliamentary representatives trot out every five years on Newsnight, but the past century of artistic manifestos since the Futurists in 1909:
We want to exalt movements of aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist.
I don’t just think manifestos are exciting to read. I also feel that we, as writers, can learn from their use of language.
To begin with, manifestos are decisive. To write one you must first truly understand exactly what you want to say. There is no room for vagueness, for trotting around an idea trying to pin it down; it’s impossible to write a manifesto ripe with qualifiers. Even manifestos from philosophies that are clouded and confused seem to pick language that is fierce and precise:
Shopping without money is an essential part of our plan. See it, like it, have it. Never take no for an answer – The Decadent Action Manifesto
I’m not sure if this qualifies as poetry but it does have certain admirable qualities, clarity being foremost. As someone who spends a great deal of time copyediting, I find the most frustrating sentences are the ones that contain a jumble of disparate ideas, tangled together for the reader to unravel. That is selfish writing, writing done by the author in order to mull over ideas in their own head. It’s fine for a diary or first draft, but words intended for other people to read could do worse than adhere to the Decadent Action’s level of exactitude.
A further hallmark of the manifesto is an affection for concrete illustration. Though the notions behind them may be lofty and abstract, manifestos tend to be couched in pinpointed detail, such as the Tea Appreciation Society’s:
We want to exalt these slow movements of ecstasy, feverish boiling of the kettle, the pour, the perilous stir, the rattle and the clink of the spoon.
I love this. I love the onomatopoeia of the ‘rattle’ and ‘clink’, I love the ‘feverish boiling’, and the ‘perilous stir’. It makes me crave a steaming mug of sugary tea, which is surely the highest accolade you can give any description of food or drink.
I am also drawn to this appropriation of political rhetoric to talk about the small pleasures, the tea and the clouds:
We seek to remind people that clouds are expressions of the atmosphere’s moods, and can be read like those of a person’s countenance. – The Cloud Appreciation Society.
You don’t need to write a manifesto crying for total revolution and your short story doesn’t need to dwell on The Grand Themes Of Our Modern Age. Sometimes (always!) it’s enough to be excited about the details, the little things in life which tickle you and demand to be written down.
There is also the final fact that writing a manifesto is, by its very nature, a brave act. Whether you agree with what a manifesto says is as irrelevant as whether you think Humbert Humbert was an upstanding kind of guy. What’s thrilling is anything proclaimed with this degree of certitude:
Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex. – SCUM Manifesto
Valerie Solanas, I presume, didn’t write that because she had a deadline due or because she thought that being a writer might be kind of fun. I’m guessing she wrote it because she felt that those were things that absolutely had to be said, that couldn’t go another moment without being screamed fervently from the end of her pen.
Whatever else, surely that’s the best way to approach the blank page.