Somebody (Please) Say Something

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I wrote a blog in July 2014 suggesting that despite the plethora of news and print everywhere, nobody was really saying anything, at least nothing of interest, importance or even relating much to the truth. It was called Somebody Say Something, the title of an article written by John Lanchester ten years ago. He was pleading then for someone to say something (of some relevance). I recently listened to a recording of interviews with American Writers, a CD I’ve listened to perhaps fifty times. I never tire of it or anything to do with writers. They seem to me to be people who think about the world and have interesting things to say, not all of them of course, but any vaguely serious writers. Listening to American Writers I was struck by how relevant their opinions were and are. The CD reminded me of Lanchester’s article – if people weren’t saying much in 2004, they are saying much less now. There is plenty being said of course, but how much really addresses matters of substance?

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These interviews are from the 60, 70s and 80s and most of the writers are now dead. It doesn’t matter. Their words are as important today as they were then. Is anybody today saying anything of significance? Here is

 

William Burroughs in 1964:

Love plays little part in my mythology. I feel that what we call love is largely a fraud, a mixture of sentimentality and sex which has been systematically degraded and vulgarised by the virus power. The virus power manifests itself in many ways: in the construction of nuclear weapons, in the creation of political systems which are aimed at curtailing inner freedom. It manifests itself in the extreme drabness of everyday life in western society. It manifests itself in the ugliness and vulgarity that we see on every street.

Toni Morrison in 1982

That business about lazy. People doing four jobs are supposedly lazy. I remember working in houses for white people. It’s very difficult if you move in somebody’s dirt not to recognise that they are both lazy and dirty. I am the one who is assumed to be both those things. If a proper economic study is done of this country, it must include the fact that they had 200 years of free labour, which made them a successful country in one eighth of the time they would normally have to spend.

Henry Miller in 1979

Sex has no pull anymore. Everybody is immersed in it like a hot bath. Therefore there is no ecstasy, no surprise, no enjoyment. It’s as if they were doing exercises.

Saul Bellow in 1977

They are intellectual professionals in the study of literature. Their purpose is to convert novels, poems, plays into subject matter. This is where the damage comes; they make discourse of it. It wasn’t originally there to make discourse of. Modern novels weren’t taught in the universities of the 19th century. Anyone who has received a decent education should be able to pick up a novel by themselves and read it.

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Mary McCarthy in 1960

I think the world is pretty terrible and somebody has to speak up. I think there is a general conspiracy of silence about what goes on. All the stuff that’s piped in, including probably this programme with me on it, that daily cant that pours from the radio, the newspapers, advertising, education and everybody simply endures it. Somebody should get up and just shut it off.

Eudora Welty in 1985

Something has been troubling me a lot when I go round and talk to students. It is that very intelligent people don’t know the difference between fiction and non-fiction and they don’t assume there is any.

Arthur Miller in 1968

The reality was depression. The reality was the whole thing coming down in a heap of wood and cinders. What happens when everybody has a refrigerator? What happens when everybody has a car? It’s got to end.

Gore Vidal in 1978

With politics and religion, one is the mirror of the other and there is no answer in either case.


Except for Toni Morrison, these writers are now dead. None would be pleased with the way society has gone. If Mary McCarthy thought there was too much daily cant then, her head would explode now. Why must we be taught literature? We can teach ourselves and enjoy it ourselves. The virus power attempts more and more to curtail inner freedoms. To Eudora Welty I would point out that those students were certainly NOT ‘very intelligent people’. She was being far too polite. Arthur Miller knew in 1949 that it all has to end – we’re much closer now. Sex is merely an advertising scam.

This is just a small sample of what the writers had to say about their world. I can thoroughly recommend the CD to anyone interested (British Library: The Spoken Word archive). They also recorded a British Writers CD which is almost as good, including JB Priestly, William Golding and many others.

I shall continue to read biographies and listen to recordings of writers. They seem to me to be the only people recognising what is actually happening. Some care, some don’t. Some would like to change the world, others think it unchangeable or they would change a small part of it, usually their own tiny part of it. No matter, through the ages, from Homer to Dickens and beyond, they all have something to say. They lead interesting lives and find different ways of communicating their ideas, as did Hunter S Thompson in The Rum Diary: escaping from the Luce empire with its ‘slick drivers and jingo parrots’ spreading  ‘like a piss puddle’ to Puerto Rico where a tourist ship arrives ‘from somewhere in the middle of America, some flat little town’ with another ‘fearsomely alike’ group, consisting of ‘shapeless women in wool bathing suits and dull-eyed men with hairless legs who should never have been allowed to leave their local Elks Club.’

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Who says stuff like that anymore?

 

Reviewing books….

booksI haven’t written anything for a while, not because I lack the desire, but because there are so many ideas bouncing around that I’ve failed to keep hold of a single line of thought long enough to turn it into words. Frustrating, although at least I don’t live with a dull mind. Anyway, one theme keeps returning; it’s here again today, so I’m going to write about it before people forget I exist: A book I published in 2012, two other books and the reviews they received.

Caliente, an account of my time in Cuba has sold around one thousand copies, I haven’t kept track, and perhaps the same again in electronic format. I occasionally receive small boosts to my bank account due to people, I assume worldwide, buying it. It started as a diary, then when people liked bits and pieces, over many years it became a book. The story at the time seemed to me so alive and interesting that I had to tell it. With much help from a friend, I manfully did my best to promote it, but without a massive or even moderate publicity budget (it was truly tiny), I stood little chance of achieving big sales.

I still get emails from people who read and enjoyed Caliente, mostly travellers. At the beginning, when it was published, I got eight or so positive reviews on Amazon from friends, the other reviews, good or bad, are from genuine readers that I don’t know. I suppose everybody, even established authors, must get friends to review their books, and one thing one must always do on Amazon is try to separate the friendly from the genuine.

After a year I abandoned the publicity trail and started a novel. I have finished my novel twice and am now beginning a third rewrite which will be much longer. If I do finish it, it will almost certainly not sell. I don’t care. Some success would be good but it isn’t essential. I’m proud of Caliente and I will be proud of my novel. I appreciate the sales of Caliente and I like getting appreciative emails. I am not bitter in the slightest, but I do wonder about the reviewing process in Britain (I assume it’s the same in the USA).

In making my point I’ve chosen two books that can take a little criticism. Both have been fantastically reviewed and achieved significant sales: The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers (2012) and In The Light Of What We Know, Zia Haider Rahman (2014). The Yellow Birds is written by a veteran of the Gulf War, so has immediate kudos which people will naturally not easily criticise. On Amazon it has dozens of reviews from famous authors, actors, broadcasters and newspapers; inside its covers are printed a choice of the best reviews. Hilary Mantel (whom I admire) described it as ‘A masterpiece of war literature and a classic’; Damien Lewis, star of Homeland, thought it ‘poetic and devastating’. It won The Guardian First Book Award.

I bought the book based on the reviews, surely so many couldn’t be wrong. I must be appallingly out-of-step. I did not like the book at all. Not only did I not like it, I found hardly a page or sentence which moved me, let alone interested me. I was bored. I thought the book was badly written, had no real purpose and never came alive at any stage. I’ve read plenty of war literature, never coming across anything as bad as this. I accept that this was written by a serving soldier, and I have no experience of war, but that does not mean that the soldier can write. I believe that The Yellow Birds is a bad book.

In The Light Of What We Know supposedly ‘wrestles with the intricacies of the 2008 financial crash’. James Wood thought it ‘astonishingly achieved…ideas and provocations abound on every page’; Joyce Carol Oates compared it to Heart of Darkness and The Great Gatsby and the writers Graham Greene, W.G. Sebald, John le Carre and Thomas Mann. At 554 pages, as opposed to The Yellow Birds’ 226, this was very hard going. Again, I read it because of the reviews. Again, I found almost nothing of interest. This is not to say that Rahman may not write a good novel in the future, but this is not it; it is an obvious first novel, with too much crammed into it and no recognisable structure to hold it all. To me, another bad book.

I am still mystified by the marvellous reviews for these books. I do not believe I am over critical or unreasonable. I am quite widely read, reading anything from Shakespeare to detective novels. I fully accept that books like Fifty Shades of Grey get published and people like them. But they do not pretend to be, or get treated as, literature. They are harmless, not to my taste, but harmless. Was The Yellow Birds taken so seriously because it was written by a serving soldier? I don’t think so; there are many better books on the subject that get much closer to the truth. Did the author merely know the right people, who spread the word? I really don’t know. In The Light Of What We Know was crammed full of ideas which ultimately went nowhere in very boring fashion. How on earth did it gain such reviews?

I would be interested to hear from anyone who disagrees with me. Have any of you read these books? Am I so out-of-touch? Or is there a strange system of reviewing, where a book is chosen and the same people choose to say wonderful things about it? The same books and authors seem to get reviewed by the same people, ad nauseam. Not all the books are bad, of course, but every week something awful is praised to the heavens. I repeat, I am not bitter, merely mystified.

Just to add balance, I would like to say that I’ve recently read: A True Story Based on Lies and Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, Jimfish by Christopher Hope, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, Trespass by D.J. Taylor, Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone and A Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan (among others) and thoroughly enjoyed them all, for very different reasons, gaining a different kind of pleasure from each.

They were simply good stories, well-told.

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How to write…

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I’ve always wanted to be a writer, sort of. Apparently my junior school teacher told my mother that my subject would be English. It wasn’t. It wasn’t anything. I was far too busy playing truant, misbehaving and generally having a good time. I took an interest in books in my late teens, but was still far too lazy and preoccupied to get seriously into literature. I loved foreign holidays because I’d take a dozen books with me and read them all. To me that was what holidays were for. At home I was too busy drinking, chasing girls, taking drugs and being bad, to read. I probably read as much during one holiday as I did during a whole year at home. I wanted to read; I bought loads of books – I loved them – I just didn’t read many of them.

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Times have slowly changed. Now I read a lot, have done for many years, but I still allow myself to be distracted by TV and the Internet. I write a lot too. I have actually written all my life, jotting down ideas, starting short stories, even novels, but never really sustaining anything the way real writers do. Only age has made me slow down and write and I’ve become fairly good at it: one published memoir and a novel just submitted. But it took me forever to do it. The memoir was the result of ten years’ work, on-and-off; the novel has taken me a year, although it was roughly complete in a couple of months.

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And when you come to write: How do you write? I must have read a hundred books on writing, but I’m not sure I’ve taken one bit of advice. I still sit down and write the way I always do, always have done, with some learning on the way that has been absorbed rather than learned. A sort of osmosis. And that osmosis, the absorption has come about through reading and thinking about what I’ve read, all the time; even in those lazy early days I realise that I was reading and writing and thinking and absorbing, watching people, thinking about it, storing it. And I love books. I love stories.

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But how do you write? Can it be taught? I think the churning out of stories: vampire stories, love stories, detective stories and all the other variations can be taught, especially in the techno-age. I think real writers are born, not taught: Tolstoy, Balzac, Shakespeare, Steinbeck – they wrote because they couldn’t help it, and they don’t get forgotten. They are with us always. They told great stories.

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In How I Became a Famous Novelist, Steve Hely wrote:

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But as I walked out through the shelves, I looked at the work of my colleagues. There was Hemingway – A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls – all those pseudo-epic titles with women dying in the rain, bullfights, and Italian vistas. He knew the deal. He knew doomed Mediterranean romances would pay for Key West beach view and a new fishing boat. And Fitzgerald, who’d tricked the eye with an Ivy League pedigree and convinced the world that a rich guy who threw parties was some kind of metaphor. There was Faulkner, a southern huckster in the Bill Clinton mould, who suckered you in with his honey voice and tales of landscapes soaked in tragedy.

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Is this true? The great novelist as con-artist? It made me think. I like Hemingway’s short stories. I loved The Old Man and the Sea when I was very young, but found it mostly awful when I returned to it recently. I didn’t like a Farewell to Arms; it read like the script to a very bad ‘B’ movie. I liked The Great Gatsby, but not that much. It’s OK, but I’ve never understood its reputation. I’ve never read Faulkner. Con-artists? Hely continues:

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It went on back to Homer, who’d written stories so ridiculous, so full of special effects and monsters and busty, half-divine sluts that Hollywood would be ashamed to make them. And he’d pulled it off! He’s punched it up with rosy -fingered dawn and the sickeningly cloying scene of Prium begging for his son’s body. That blind old trickster probably got more chicks (or dudes) than Pericles.

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On through Dickens, with his pleading orphans and sweetheart aunts; Mark Twain, with his little cherub-faced rascals and mock rural slang; James Joyce with his whisky-soaked-stage-Irish blarney – they were all con-artists. They weren’t any better than the guys who write beer commercials or sell car insurance over the phone. They just had a different angle.

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Now, Dely is writing tongue-in-cheek here (I hope), but is there any truth in what he says? I’ve read very little Homer (I find it difficult), but I like Dickens and Mark Twain a lot. James Joyce’s early stories were great but then he lost me – I’ve tried Ulysses several times and it always defeats me. But no better than the guys who write commercials?

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Norman Mailer wrote that

‘It’s as hard to learn to write as to play the piano’.

It is. Even for the jobbing writer who turns out average stuff. Sitting down in front of a blank page is a real challenge, it can be daunting, and it was just as hard for Joyce and Hemingway. Being a writer is not easy. Take this from someone who invents fresh avoidance tactics every day. I would do anything to avoid writing. Con-artists? I don’t think so. Lucky, in a few cases, maybe, shysters, no.

But back to how to write. For all the books I’ve read on writing, I think I’ve only picked up a few rules, and I probably knew them anyway. One of them is Elmore Leonard’s favourite rule: Do not use adverbs: ‘said’ with the name of the speaker at the end of a piece of dialogue is enough, and only occasionally to identify the speaker. If I pick up a book in a shop and read ‘John said hopefully’ or ‘sadly’ or ‘doubtfully’ or whatever, I put the book straight back on the shelf. The reader does not need to be told. They can and want to figure it out for themselves. If the writing is good enough the reader will know how the words are spoken or they will work out their own version. Don’t tell them.

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Don’t tell the reader how your characters are feeling.

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Chekhov this time:

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Shun all descriptions of the characters’ spiritual state. You must try to have that state emerge from their actions. The artist must be only an impartial witness of his characters and what they said, not their judge.

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Let your readers judge character and feeling. Let them do the work. That’s half the pleasure of reading. I remember when I wrote my memoir, describing a policeman (who had caused me a lot of trouble) skidding away from a police station on his motorbike, leaving me standing in a cloud of dust. A woman who later read the account said she liked the description. Why? Because you didn’t say how it made you feel.

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Sis Field writes screenplays but his advice applies to any writer of fiction:

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Without conflict there no drama. Without need there is no character. Without character there is no action. Action is character. What a person does is what he is, not what he says.

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Action is not necessarily people fighting or shooting or special effects. It can be a knowing smile or the way someone smokes a cigarette. Elia Kazan, someone else who worked with the screen, said

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‘It’s twenty times better if violence is suggested rather than if you’re explicit. What you imagine is much more frightening than what is seen.’

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The same applies to writing novels. Take your reader into another world, tell them a story, but let them imagine the most important aspects of it.

Those are the only things I’ve picked up on from all those books on writing, and I think I knew them already. I absorbed what made good writing from the hundreds of good books I’ve read. And of course you need a modicum of talent. And the most important rule of all?

Work hard. Really hard. The aspect that I find the most difficult.

As G.K. Chesterton said, there is only one way:

Apply the seat of the pants to the chair and don’t get up until it’s finished.

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Writing Heroes – Ernest Hemingway

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I have a strange relationship with Ernest Hemingway. I read The Old Man and the Sea when I was very young, and loved it. I was completely caught up in the story of the Cuban fisherman who caught a giant marlin while way out to sea and…well I won’t spoil the story for those who may want to read it. Then I didn’t read anything else by Hemingway for 30 years, picking him up again when I first visited Cuba.

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Probably as much has been written about Hemingway as any other writer. As with many writers, even Nobel prize winners, the critics at first loved him, perhaps over praised him, and then turned against him, sometimes with justification. But the critics turn against almost everyone eventually and: Who are they but people who can’t write, people who can’t tell stories?

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I haven’t even read all his books, but he did change the way many people write, so he’s endlessly interesting, his incredible life apart. When I returned to Hemingway I read his short stories and turned first to Big Two Hearted River, which I’d heard was special. It was. By this time I thought much more about writing; I couldn’t be pulled along by a narrative as I had been by the Old Man and the Sea, and had not been much impressed by any new writing. The story hit home. I understood Hemingway and what he did and what he meant to people. When Samuel Putnam asked Hemingway what his aims were in the twenties, his answer was:

Put down what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way I can tell it.

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Well, he did that in 1925 with Big Two Hearted River. I found some of the writing moved me (a rare experience); it sounds corny but reading it was like being there. You felt it. I don’t know if it will have the same effect here, in isolation, but here goes. Nick has just set up camp, alone, by the river:

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It smelled pleasantly of canvas. Already there was something mysterious and homelike. Nick was happy as he crawled inside the tent. He had not been unhappy all day. This was different though. Now things were done. There had been this to do. Now it was done. It had been a hard trip. He was very tired. That was done. He had made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was a good place to camp. He was there, in a good place. He was in his home where he had made it. Now he was hungry.

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This passage reminded me immediately of my hitch hiking days in Europe. After a day on the road, find a site, pitch your tent and you were done for the day. But it didn’t just remind me – it made me feel it. Hemingway has captured that sense of achievement, of creating your home, being comfortable and being all set for the evening, perfectly. It is a wonderful, simple piece of writing. It looks easy – anybody could write that – but they couldn’t. I liked most of the other short stories too.

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I also read Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises. I enjoyed it but not so much. Already his macho tendencies were creeping in. Later I disliked A Farewell to Arms. It seemed to me thoroughly sentimental, not really an experience of war but a man imagining the part he would like to play in it. Hemingway was intensely competitive: the great white hunter, the fearless war correspondent, the champion fisherman, the boxer, the drinker. I felt it tainted most of his writing after the short stories.

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I liked For Whom the Bell Tolls and Across the River and Into the Trees; I didn’t like Islands in the Stream. A Moveable Feast is an entertaining, but not entirely true account of Hemingway’s early days in Paris. The Garden of Eden is very strange, an erotic ménage a trois, again based on his early days in France. But with success came obsessions: to hunt, to own a boat and catch the biggest fish, to be present, though not necessarily involved in, war. Ultimately it felt that Hemingway was in constant competition with everybody, even poor Scott Fitzgerald, whose fragile psyche he messed with.

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The story that did for me occurred long after he had lost a lot of friends because of his behaviour. He was on his boat, Pilar, in Cuban waters with a good and old friend, Mike Strater. Strater had hooked a really big fish, the biggest he’d ever caught and bigger than anything Hemingway had ever caught. He was slowly reeling it in to the boat. It was being followed by sharks but they only really go for blood; he would have got it on board. Hemingway grabbed his machine gun (he loved shooting sharks) and sprayed the water. Strater’s fish was attacked. By the time they landed it the bottom half had been eaten away. It weighed in at 500 pounds, but would have weighed double that whole. It was pure jealousy, stopping a friend from beating him. He then lied about the event in an article for Esquire. Friends don’t do that.

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Of course his whole life was tragic. There were five suicides in his family. It is thought his father had the genetic disease hemochromatosis, where the inability to metabolize iron culminates in mental and physical deterioration. Hemingway’s hemochromatosis had been diagnosed in early 1961. Hemingway’s father, siblings Ursula and Leicester and granddaughter Margaux all died by their own hand. Hemingway’s youngest son, Gregory, died in 2001 as a transsexual named Gloria. Several books could be written on Hemingway’s life, but here I’m just concentrating on the writing.

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I returned to The Old Man and the Sea a few years back and didn’t like it much. Was that just the result of me becoming older and more cynical? Partly, but not wholly. Although it showed flashes of the old Hemingway, I thought it was overly sentimental and contrived.

In Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost (2012), Paul Hendrickson spends over 700 pages trying to rescue Hemingway’s reputation. I don’t think he does it. In many ways he was an awful man. His writing remains though, and many of his early observations have stayed with me. Carlos Baker:

Hemingway always wrote slowly and revised carefully, cutting, eliding, substituting, experimenting with syntax to see what a sentence could most economically carry, and then throwing out all the words that could be spared.

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The actual, he wrote in 1949, is ‘made of knowledge, experience, wine, bread, oil, salt, vinegar, bed, early mornings, nights, days, the sea, men, women, dogs, beloved motor cars, bicycles, hills and valleys, the appearance and disappearance of trains on straight and curved tracks…cock grouse drumming on a basswood log, the smell of sweetgrass and fresh-smoked leather and Sicily.’

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Perhaps not so awful.

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Blocked…

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I spent most of December in Cuba. Apart from the usual fun aspects, my intention was to read for a week, write a few blogs and get on with my novel. The first draft of the novel was complete. I had to go through it and tidy the whole thing up. I significantly changed the plot and finished the whole thing quite easily. I knew the end of the novel but couldn’t quite decide how to write it. With a few days left I decided to leave ending the novel until I got home.

 

Five weeks later I still haven’t finished it. I tinkered a little with the earlier chapters but have not even looked at the ending. For the first week, and then two, I thought it was just jet lag or being back at work, but work has been easy and jet lag only lasts a few days. It is very strange; I am forcing myself to write this, trying to get myself back in the mood, back in the writing mood. Writing is never easy, but sometimes it flows, and the writing I’ve done during the past year suddenly seems to have been very easy (it wasn’t), compared to now. How did I do it?

 

I have written one blog since Cuba, the one about an argument in the street and the heavy police response. It said something about crime in Havana, about crime in Cuba – I was pleased with it. Although it didn’t get much response, I thought it neatly summed up much about Cuba: the nature of their arguments, quickly over and forgotten, the temperament of the people and the fact that crime is almost non-existent. It was a short piece but I felt I could return to it in more detail, explain it more fully. But since then – nothing. Blocked.

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Blocked. It’s over two weeks since I wrote anything and I have not even looked at my novel for three weeks. At first you look for excuses, but now I must admit that blocked is what it is. Writing this is like swimming through treacle or going into work with the flu – I really don’t want to do it. Norman Mailer described the difficulties well:

Writing every day is a depressing activity. Sometimes after two hours of writing I feel as if I’ve done seven hours of manual labour.

Of course Norman Mailer is referring to the general difficulty of writing, not being blocked. He was an incredibly industrious writer and didn’t always find it so hard. Throughout his life though, despite enormous success, he had to keep working, mainly to pay for his five ex-wives and his numerous children.

 

Writing this does feel like seven hours of manual labour, but I feel that I must get back into it, and perhaps writing about being blocked is as good a way as any of removing the block. And as Norman Mailer put it:

One must be able to do a good day’s work on a bad day, and indeed, that is a badge of honour decent professionals are entitled to wear.

I feel I have had too many bad days (in terms of writing) and must, if I want to be a writer, continue, even though it is the last thing I want to do. I still want to earn that ‘badge of honour’ that Mailer neatly applies to professionals – you simply must be willing to work on a bad day.

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Life is fine apart from the writing. Most things are going quite well. It is at times like this that one echoes Hemingway, when one would rather be anything but a writer, when any other occupation or pastime seems enormously attractive:

I would rather have a good life than be a bloody great writer.

There is a strong temptation to feel like this, that any occupation is better. Hemingway managed to make his life startlingly unhappy, but as he said about his friend F Scott Fitzgerald:

Scott took literature so seriously. He never understood that it was just writing as well as you can and finishing what you start.

And Hemingway’s unhappiness was more to do with his personal life than his writing. He ruined his talent and lost his friends. Writing gave him the means to be happy; his character made him unhappy, and probably would have made him unhappy whatever he’d done.

I haven’t returned to my novel for a long time. I’m not sure why that is: if I think it isn’t good enough or if I think it is good but am nervous of the reaction – I really don’t know.

Writing was not always a chore for Norman Mailer. When he was working on a book his routine, which he kept to, was seven hours of writing a day, at least four days of the week. And it wasn’t all suffering; on some days he was:

…manic, alive, filled every day with the excitement and revelation of everything I see.

He apparently always had an aura ‘that projected a love of life’; one of his admirers said she was:

…amazed to see how jolly Mailer was; most of the writers she knew were anxious and unhappy.

I suppose I would like to follow the Mailer model, not exactly, but certainly in his love of life. Too many writers are miserable, see everything as an unpleasant task and write negatively about life. I may be blocked, but I’ve started again with this, poor as it may be. I will get to my novel again soon and finish it. Who knows what the response will be. I hope it’s good, but if it isn’t, well at least I will have completed it. And there’s plenty more where it came from. Well, there will be, just as soon as I rid myself of this writer’s block.

And ultimately I know there is only one way to do it. As GK Chesterton said:

 

“Apply the seat of the pants to chair and remain there until it’s finished.”

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The Shakespeare Controversy

01v/11/arve/G2582/016Perhaps many of you will have heard that there is a sort of controversy over Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays. I shouldn’t really describe it as a controversy because it isn’t, or it shouldn’t be; a controversy exists when there is some doubt about one side of an argument, when there are two sides to an argument and no matter how tenuous one side is, there is some substance to it. Over eighty alternative authors have been put forward for alternative authorship; they have one thing in common: there is not a scrap of evidence for any of them.

This is a subject that, since I became aware of it, has made me quite angry. I have tried to ignore it, but it always creeps back; you see even the ‘Does it matter’ arguments are annoying. Of course it matters. I shall try, briefly, to explain.

Apparently, doubt as to the authorship of his works began in the mid-nineteenth century, well over 200 years after his death. Friends and colleagues of his time had no doubt about his identity; they worked and socialised with him; Ben Johnson said of him that he

‘never blotted a line, would that he had blotted a thousand’.

It seems to have taken rather a long time for people to question his identity. A paucity of evidence from his life has helped, giving doubters ammunition to invent and speculate, but despite the paucity there is ample evidence that he was the author of the works. It takes a rather strange mind to doubt it. Unfortunately, especially now, there are plenty of strange minds around. And, I repeat (it can’t be repeated too often), there is not a scrap of evidence for anyone else having written his works. None whatsoever.

This poses the question as to why there are doubters. If we discount those always keen on any conspiracy theories and those with a vested interests (often lawyers), we are left with a relatively small bunch who simply refuse to believe that Shakespeare wrote his own plays. This is important; it is not that they truly believe any alternative, although they profess to do so, it is that they merely refuse to believe the truth. There is a reason for this: it is called snobbery.

The most popular fantasy today is that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays, supposedly because only an aristocrat could have known so much about court behaviour, Italian history and poetry. As Bill Bryson has observed, this does make it rather difficult for him to have written Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest and many others, on account of being dead. But his champions merely point out that there was a conspiracy and evidence was falsified to protect Oxford’s identity. Why it needed to be protected or why it has taken nearly 400 years to discover this, does not seem to concern them. The Oxfordians have some quite well-known followers, Jeremy Irons, Vanessa Redgrave, Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance among them.

The fact that there is any controversy at all is extremely irritating, indeed US writer James Shapiro felt the need to write a recent book, Contested Will, to try and end the argument once and for all. It would have been much better had he used his time more productively – he is a marvellous writer on Shakespeare generally – but felt compelled to write on this topic when an 8 year old in his class expressed doubts as to the authorship (the debate, of course, is quite popular in America). I’m afraid that, having reached America and the lawyers and the film makers, even Shapiro’s excellent book will not make the doubters disappear. Although very much a minority, they are vociferous and probably growing. A film with Vanessa Redgrave and Derek Jacobi has already been made. Thankfully, it was awful.

But back to snobbery. Shakespeare has been described as looking like a ‘self-satisfied pork butcher’; he liked money; he hoarded grain; he lent money; he bought a coat of arms and a new house (called New Place) in Stratford. He was far from both the aristocracy and the poor, grammar school educated (a classical education) and with a father on the wrong side of the law. All this is too much for those who need him to be a bit more refined, a bit more superior, a bit more above everybody else. Pork butcher? Money lending? Hoarding grain? A criminal father? No, we can’t have that.

This is where the snobbery comes in. The likes of Irons, Jacobi and Redgrave need to have the author of such wonderful works as somebody a little better than them. Having never struggled to pay a bill, never struggled with anything really, they can’t accept that an ordinary boy from Stratford could be so much smarter than they are, be so wiser than they are – be so utterly brilliant. So they have to believe that it was really an aristocrat who wrote the plays; lacking any evidence for anybody, other than an aristocrat who happened to be dead when many of the plays were written, they cling desperately to an illusion. What awful, silly people they must be.

masks-001Shakespeare was so brilliant, so good, partly because he wasn’t a member of the aristocracy, wasn’t tainted by privilege and received ideas.  He hadn’t been brainwashed by a university education. He was real and he knew people. He lived among them in London, he visited pubs and brothels; he knew and understood life. He is one of us, one of the people – he is ours. That is what the likes of Jacobi cannot abide. They have to try and raise Shakespeare above us. They simply cannot stand the fact that he was an ordinary person and, more importantly, that ordinary people are capable of being Shakespeare – that there may be another Shakespeare out there among the masses. They would have to admit that it was possible, that there is more possibility among the masses than their privileged upbringing and lack of brainpower allows.

That is also why the question of authorship matters, that the greatest writer of all time was ordinary is very important. It should give inspiration to everybody. Allow these idiots to give the credit to an aristocrat and you rob the whole world of the possibility of great achievement. It matters.

I don’t have much space to go into the question of proof for Shakespeare’s authorship, I shouldn’t need to, but feel it necessary to mention a couple of things. The forest is a recurring theme in his plays. I quote from Peter Ackroyd’s biography:

“To the north of Stratford lay the Forest of Arden. When Touchstone enters the woods in As You Like It, he declares ‘I, now I am in Arden, the more foole I’. Shakespeare’s mother was Mary Arden.  Anne Hathaway lived on the outskirts of the forest.  His consciousness of the area was close and intense. The evidence of Shakespeare’s work provides evidence that he was neither born nor raised in the city. He doesn’t have the harshness of John Milton, born in Bread Street, nor the hardness of Ben Jonson, educated at Westminster School; the sharpness of Alexander Pope from the City or the obsessiveness of William Blake from Soho. He is of the country.”

On the question of snobbery I quote from an interview with Bill Bryson about his excellent short biography of Shakespeare:

Interviewer: Is it snobbery? He was a relatively ordinary man from a relatively ordinary background and they want him to be an aristocrat or somebody sort of special.

Bryson: That is really quite insulting to ordinary people. The idea that you could come from a modest background and that somehow that would disqualify you from being William Shakespeare is really a very demeaning thought. There’s no evidence for it. There never has been any evidence for it.

Oxfordians cannot explain Shakespeare’s knowledge of the country and its people. His knowledge of the cities came from living with them, his knowledge of Roman history from Plutarch. He was mainly an adaptor, he took other works and improved them. He wrote what are still some of the best parts for women, 400 years before feminism. He understood both men and women. He was modest; I’m sure he would be baffled by all the fuss about him today, although I’m sure he would take advantage of it.

Academics are generally very polite. In all the works stating (again) that the man from Stratford wrote the plays, they are very kind to the likes of Irons, Redgrave and Jacobi. They shouldn’t be; these people are a menace. They are snobs and idiots, too stupid to realise the damage they are causing. I suppose the best thing now would be to ignore them. I try to, but unfortunately they keep cropping up on television. It’s hard to see a solution.

To the Tower with them?

tol-001

Who’s Your Muse?

the_MusesIn my last blog, Write or Type, I quoted John Steinbeck, who always wrote longhand, discussing his pencils, where, almost incidentally, he said that

“sometimes when I am writing I am very near to a kind of unconsciousness.”

That ‘kind of unconsciousness’ has mystified artists for thousands of years; even the Greeks, where muses originated, could not agree on what muses are. Many writers acknowledge a debt to muses, the mysterious source of inspiration; muses are an attractive idea (to men anyway), beautiful goddesses bestowing wisdom on mere mortals at their whim, possessing all the world’s secrets but giving only small snippets to those who wish to tell truthful stories of human existence.

Do you need inspiration to work, or at least produce work that satisfies you? Or do you believe that everything is about technique, planning and hard work, that the muses are just a pleasant fantasy, adding mystery to what is a job like any other, that can be learned and mastered?

Not all writers have faith in the muse. Flaubert distrusted them. William Golding thought the idea of inspiration ridiculous. On being asked about DH Lawrence’s statement

“Never trust the artist, trust the tale”

he replied

“Oh, that’s absolute nonsense. The man who tells the tale, if he has a tale worth telling will know exactly what he is about, and this business of the artist as a sort of starry-eyed, inspired creature, dancing along with his feet above the surface of the earth, not really knowing what sort of prints he’s leaving behind him, is nothing like the truth.”

While I agree with much of what Golding says – the successful ‘starry eyed’ artist is rare – he does ignore the fact that the man who knows ‘exactly what he is about’ can still receive help from a source he does not know ‘exactly’, help from the unconscious, from the muse. Was Golding a writer who used his intelligence and ability only, always aware of exactly what he was doing, planning meticulously and never changing direction due to flashes of inspiration? Are writers divided between those who believe that they are sole creators and those who admit to outside help?

Gerard Manley Hopkins thought inspiration

“a great, abnormal mental acuteness, either energetic or receptive.”

I haven’t found much on what women think about muses, if they think in those terms at all, although Anais Nin believed that

“this dangerous alchemy called creation, or fiction, has become as dangerous for me as the machine.”

I’ll try to discover what women think about this subject (I’m sure the information is available), but would also like to hear from women writers about their belief, or lack of it, in muses and inspiration.

I do believe that good writing is the result of hard work, but also that during that hard work, inspiration can take over, providing mysterious insight, its origins not fully understood. It can change the direction of stories, give characters a life of their own, produce tales that were not consciously planned. I do like to think of the muse as female (mostly) but my sources of inspiration can vary according to mood, a bit like belief in an unidentifiable God – something is always there, you have faith in it, but you don’t know what it is.

The nine Greek muses were female: Calliope (Epic Poetry), Clio (History), Erato (Love Poetry), Euterpe (Music), Melpomene (Tragedy), Polyhymnia (Hymns), Terpsichore (Dance) Thalia (Comedy), and Urania (Astronomy). calliopeThere was no muse for novelists at that time due to them not existing, so I suppose Calliope represented the muse that would most likely provide inspiration for writers today. Calliope was a superior muse. She kept the company of kings and princes in order to impose justice and serenity, was the protector of heroic poems and rhetoric art. According to myth, Homer asked Calliope to inspire him while writing The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Stephen King has both experience and success. He possesses a fantastic imagination, and the ability to translate it into wonderful stories that appeal to millions of readers.  Although he is not a starry-eyed dreamer, far from it, he nevertheless gives credit to outside assistance. While his muse may not have the allure of scantily clad Greek beauties or Calliope’s obvious brilliance, there is no doubting King’s belief in its existence

“If you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well. There is a muse. Traditionally, muses were women, but mine’s a guy. He’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labour, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think this is fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist (what I get out of mine is mostly surly grunts, unless he’s on duty), but he’s got the inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.”

King typically stresses the relationship between hard work and the support of his muse. The fact that hard work is essential is stressed repeatedly in King’s excellent On Writing. Another straight talker, Steven Pressman, also puts it succinctly

“Sometimes we baulk at embarking on an enterprise because we are afraid of being alone. We’re never alone. As soon as we step outside the campfire glow, our muse lights on our shoulder like a butterfly.”

Pressman quoted Somerset Maugham

“I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

Maugham, said Pressman, recognised a deeper truth

“that by performing the mundane physical act of sitting down and starting his work, he set in motion a mysterious but infallible sequence of events that would produce inspiration, as surely as if the goddess had synchronised her watch with his.”

Pressman adds

“The muse favours working stiffs. She hates prima donnas.”

John Lennon, while not identifying his help, or recommending hard work, said

“So I’m lying around and this thing comes as a whole piece, you know, words and music, and I think well, you know, can I say I wrote it? I don’t know who the hell wrote it.”

The comedian John Cleese, on being asked where he got his ideas, said

“A little man in Swindon gives them to me, but I don’t know where he gets them from.”

Despite writers’ strange and diverse beliefs: Cleese’s little man in Swindon, King’s cigar smoking slob or Anais Nin’sdangerous’ alchemy – one thing is certain – whomever or whatever your muse is, they will not come and they won’t help until you have put in the work. They will sit idly by, holding back your secrets, your tales yet to be told, secure in their ability to pluck wisdom, genius or just a good story out of the air and, when you have worked and suffered and you’re close to giving up, they might, just might, if they like what you’re doing, give you a little help.

Who’s your muse?

 

 

Note:

If you choose only two books to help you to write, not only to write, but perhaps more importantly to develop a system of work that, providing you have sufficient talent, will give you a fair chance of success, then I recommend Steven King’s On Writing and Steven Pressman’s The War Of Art. Both books give brutally honest advice and I strongly recommend them to any aspiring writer.

Write or type?

penI am fascinated by how writers write and how the process of writing has changed with the advent of technology, from the pen and typewriter which dominated until comparatively recently, to now, where in theory, one could write a novel on a tiny handheld phone. Some writers still write in longhand, believing that they work better that way, sometimes for practical reasons: to avoid distraction or because pen and paper do not need batteries, but also because they feel there is an intangible relationship between mind, hand, implement and creation.

Stephen Fry’s recommendations for writing poetry include:

“Buy a notebook, exercise book or jotter pad and lots of pencils (any writing instrument will do but I find pencils more physically pleasing).”

JK Rowling says she

“still likes writing by hand. Normally I do a first draft using pen and paper, and then do my first edit when I type it onto my computer. For some reason I prefer a black pen to a blue one, and in a perfect world I’d always use narrow feint writing paper.”

Jackie Collins’s Goddess of Vengeance comprised of 2000 handwritten pages. An assistant then types the work and Collins edits that version. She says

“I write in longhand. It takes me a long, long time to write my books. I do a lot of things on the computer but when it comes to writing I want that black felt tip pen and I want that yellow legal pad and I’m good to go anywhere in the world.”

Cecilia Ahern, author of PS I Love You, uses

“pen and paper because I love the physical act of writing – and that you can sit down anywhere and do it longhand without worrying about low batteries or Internet connections. I can write pretty much anywhere.”

These writers stress the practicality of longhand but are also specific about what they prefer: Rowling’s ‘black pen and narrow feint writing paper’, Collins’s ‘black felt tip and yellow legal pad’, while Ahern emphasises ‘the physical act of writing’. There seems to be, for some writers, a relationship between brain, hand, implement, paper and, crucially, what is actually written, something corporeal but mysterious that affects what eventually appears on a mechanically printed page.

Many writers admit when asked that most common of questions

“Where do your ideas come from?”

that they don’t know. Stephen King says

“and we know we don’t know…your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognise them when they show up.”

Ideas have ‘shown up’ to writers ever since people have told stories; before writing was reproduced and printed, stories were told from memory. Until very recently, mechanical aids were not used for writing; Shakespeare, we know, used a quill pen. It was said that he never blotted a line,

“Would that he had blotted a thousand”

said Ben Jonson, a statement of both envy and respect.

Even in the office “paper still matters” according to Phyllis Korkki in the New York Times. She cites David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, describing paper as

“in your face. Paper reminds us that we’re physical beings, despite having to contend with an increasingly virtual world,”

he said

“People complain that writing by hand is slow, but that can be good for thinking and creating. It slows us down to think and to contemplate and to revise and recast. Its physical presence can be a goad to completing tasks, whereas computer files can easily be hidden and thus forgotten.”

Some of his clients are returning to paper planners for this very reason. Although Allen does much of his writing on a computer, there are still times when writing with a fountain pen on a notepad

“allows me to get my head in the right place.”

Getting one’s head in ‘the right place’ is a difficulty most of us experience daily, but for a writer, having one’s head in the wrong place is probably the greatest obstacle to creation. So does the method of writing affect the process of getting the head in smooth writing mode? And what is the right place? To simplify matters for my purpose here, let’s just describe it as that blessed state where writing flows effortlessly. And to simplify further let us abandon the office, journalism too, and concentrate on the novelist.

John Steinbeck, in his Journal of a Novel, described writing as

“a strange and mystic business. Almost no progress has taken place since it was invented. The Book of the Dead is as good and as highly developed as anything in the 20th century and much better than most.”

Steinbeck always wrote longhand with pencil and felt that

“sometimes when I am writing I am very near to a kind of unconsciousness.”

That unconsciousness may well describe those periods when something else takes over (the Muses?) and we write as if driven by something other than ourselves, when a story becomes autonomous and seems to unfold in a way that it decides, rather than being controlled by the writer. In 1951, when Steinbeck wrote East of Eden, he could have used a typewriter. Did he, like many other writers, even today, find that writing flowed more through this relationship between hand, implement and paper than via a machine?

Steinbeck certainly had a minor obsession with pencils. In his Journal of a Novel, the diary he kept of the process of writing East of Eden, he wrote

“For years I have looked for the perfect pencil. I have found very good ones but never the perfect one. And all the time it was never the pencils but me. A pencil that is all right some days is no good another day. For example yesterday, I used a special pencil soft and fine and floated over the paper just wonderfully. So this morning I used the same kind. And they crack on me. This is the day I am stabbing the paper. So today I need a harder pencil. I have my plastic tray you know and in it three kinds of pencil for hard writing days and soft writing days. Only sometimes it changes in the middle of a day, but at least I am equipped for it. I have also some super soft pencils which I don’t use very often because I must feel as delicate as a rose petal to use them. And I am not often that way.”

Steinbeck complained that pencils were a great expense to him and that he used at least sixty a day. His best friend was the electric pencil sharpener,

“I have never had anything that I used more and was more help to me. I like to sharpen them all at once and then I never have to do it again that day.”

But he had another motive:

“I have lost the sense of rush with which I started and that is exactly what I intended to do.”

If, as Steinbeck suggests, no progress has taken place in writing since The Book of the Dead, does how we write make any difference? Will technology, the ease with which the physical book can be produced, along with automatic spelling and grammar checks produce better or worse writers? And does writing with pen or pencil improve one’s writing? Is it an aid to thinking and inspiration?

Half of the chapters in my first book were written with pen and paper. I use a Grey Pilot V5 Hi-Tecpoint 0, 5. I find the effect very similar to a pencil and of course it never needs sharpening and is good for a hundred pages or so. I keep a constant supply, always having at least ten in reserve. I can’t write with anything else; I find writing with a ballpoint resistant to flow. I do love pencils but can only write a few lines (I press too hard) before a sharpener is needed to restore a pleasing feel and appearance to my words.

Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel Prize winner for Literature, uses a graph paper notebook. He writes one full page, and then leaves the next page blank for revisions. I too like this method. Despite using a computer most of the time now, I still prefer to edit on paper, printing off a few pages and making changes with a red pen before adding them back into the screen version. I find reading and editing much easier on paper; everything is much clearer to me and the edits feel more satisfying that way – they feel right. There is certainly something very natural to writing on paper, something lacking on the screen, and I feel it’s much easier to miss errors on screen, errors which leap off the page on paper. Despite their convenience, particularly for holiday reading, I am unable to read more than a few pages of books using a Kindle or other software aids. I get no pleasure from it – something important is missing.

Kazuo Ishiguro, the Japanese-British novelist, organises and writes his novels with pen and paper. Only when the novel is complete does he type his own pages; before that he uses flow charts, folders of narratives, plot and narrators in a two year process – all hand-written with edits in pencil. John le Carré prefers to write his novels in longhand; he says that he’s allergic to computers. He writes from 4 a.m. until midday, when his wife types up the day’s work. All Le Carré’s papers were kept in a barn until he donated 85 boxes of manuscripts to the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Much can be learned from paper manuscripts about a writer’s methods and thought processes that cannot be easily discovered from a computer. Of course, once deciphered an archive can be simplified and made available on line, but that archive would not be available in the first place without the meticulous, handwritten record.

Many of my ideas and parts of stories are in notebooks which are easily found and referred to. I find these much more accessible than those in my computer, where I have more than a thousand files containing one-line ideas, chapters, potential blogs, articles and short stories. I sometimes find stuff on my computer that I think is good and wonder who the author was, then I realise that I wrote it, often many years previously. Opening a computer folder full of files, I can’t remember what work goes with the titles given to each piece and it is very time consuming to open and check each file, whereas flicking through the pages of labelled notebooks is easier, quicker, more efficient and satisfying. For me it is, anyway. I’m sure the technically proficient could show me more efficient ways of storing work on a computer, but I think I would still come across five year old work that I’d forgotten about that would have been worth pursuing. Perhaps I’m just hopelessly disorganised and anti-technology, but I find books and notebooks a better method of storing and retrieving information.

Bestselling author Tess Gerritsen blogs on the computer, but for novels, only pen and paper will do. She uses a Bic pen and sheets of unlined paper. Comfortable composing articles at the keyboard, she struggles with novels, finding that she wastes too much time

“perfecting them.”

Gerritsen appreciates pen and paper for its physical properties:

“I like knowing that once the ink’s on the page, it can’t magically disappear when the power goes out. I like being able to write notes in the margins.”

This is not to suggest that everybody should suddenly revert to using pens and pencils. Nor am I implying that those writers using longhand are better writers, or that keyboard writers are worse. I am merely theorising about the mysterious source of inspiration (my blog on Muses) and its possible relationship to the physical process of actual writing, rather than typing.  Computers are fantastic aids to general writing, for most business uses, for journalists, for articles and those with deadlines.

Whether one writes longhand or not, pens and notebooks remain indispensable; I always carry both. Watching TV, I have an open notebook beside me for those ideas which come from the news or drama or just arrive from nowhere. You think

‘that’s a great idea. I’ll work on that later’

but you won’t – you’ll forget. The best ideas come only once; they vanish as quickly and easily as they arrive. They must be recorded somewhere, quickly. Perhaps some writers make notes in their phones or other gadgets, but what if the idea needs expanding? You can’t draw arrows, margin notes and fast alterations with a gadget. Not yet anyway.  Writers who use longhand speak vaguely of a physical relationship, physical properties, hard and soft writing days, the physical act of writing, a physically pleasing aspect. There is something there, but we are not sure what it is, how to describe it or why it helps. What I am getting at here is that the pencil (or pen) is an aid to the imagination. It is certain that even some modern novelists still prefer to write this way; when it comes to creating something more than the quotidian it appears that for some, only pen and paper will do.

Lists, rules and things to do

lists-001Do you make lists of things to do and then make rules for carrying them out?

Do you find writing lists easy and fun?

Does writing a list make you feel as though you’ve achieved something?

Do you come across old lists and rules that you’ve written down, and then realise that you haven’t done a single thing about them?

Are you beginning to despair, feeling that you’ll forever be a writer of lists and nothing more?

Take heart.

Below is a writer’s list of things to do. The writer’s response to what was achieved is in italics.

Take a guess as to the identity of the writer before it’s revealed.

 •••

 1)     Study the whole course of law necessary for my final exam at university.

2)      Study practical and theoretical medicine.

3)      Study languages: French, Russian and German.

4)      Study practical and theoretical agriculture.

5)      Study history, geography and statistics.

6)      Study mathematics and the grammar school course.

7)      Write a dissertation.

8)      Attain an average degree of perfection in music.

9)      Acquire some knowledge of natural sciences.

I have not managed to do these things.

•••

New List

Write down new rules.

I wrote down a lot of rules all of a sudden and wanted to follow them all, but I was not strong enough. So now I want to set myself one rule only and to add another rule to it only when I’ve followed that one.

The first rule which I prescribe is as follows:

1)      Carry out everything you have resolved must be carried out.

I haven’t carried out this rule.

 

 •••

The lists above were taken from Tolstoy’s early diaries when he was a student at the prestigious Kazan University. Tolstoy was a bad student, the beginning of a lifelong contempt for authority. He behaved very badly and then castigated himself in his diaries.

 “He had a raging uncontrollable spirit leaping off in all directions.”

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Tolstoy

 

But he did not lack ambition. He had rigorous plans, parts of which are related above. Tolstoy was forever making lists and plans and promises to himself to be the strongest, the cleverest, the most saintly model of manhood. However, in diary entries that remind you more of Adrian Mole than a future literary giant, he discovers that writing lists is the easy part.

I find it enormously encouraging that the writer of War and Peace and Anna Karenina had similar problems getting started that I suspect most of us do. It certainly prompted me not only to write fewer lists, but to make much more effort to actually carry them out and, crucially, not make promises to myself that I don’t keep.

I hope it inspires you too.

More on Tolstoy later.

Victor Hugo did it Naked

Victor Hugo did it naked, standing at a lectern facing a third floor window of his Guernsey home, overlooking St Peter Port harbour. Tennessee Williams couldn’t stop doing it and worried constantly about it. George Orwell thought it “a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness”, while Evelyn Waugh required “merely silence” to do it; he preferred his children to be “away”. John Lennon thought it ‘torture’ and GK Chesterton believed there was only one way to do it.

penFor many authors, writing is not a pleasurable experience, although Victor Hugo may have discovered a fun element.

Why am I writing about writing? Well, I’ve written one book and I’m desperately trying to write a second. I didn’t begin writing my first until into middle-age and it took me a few years to complete.  I’d always wanted to write, so why did it take me so long?

Because I will do anything rather than sit down and write; tasks I normally hate: cleaning, paying bills, laundry, suddenly take precedence over writing, even though it’s the writing and the ideas for writing that are constantly swirling around in my mind. When I finally force myself to write, the early stages are the hardest, the period when nothing will come, when I believe I’m an utter moron and question my ability: “who are you kidding, thinking you can write?” This is often the stage where I just have to do that extra piece of research, read the latest book on how to write or the latest author biography, switch on that must-see TV programme – or just give up and open a bottle of wine.

But why is writing so hard?

John Yorke, in his recent book Into the Woods, shows that stories follow a pattern, a common structure. This is not a new idea, far from it, but Yorke believes that the archetypal structure matches deep psychological needs within us all: order from chaos, characters changing, confronting their demons to become the people they were always capable of being. This supplies a need for the reader, who is comforted by the process, identifying with the character that brings order from turmoil, confronts and slays the enemy. The detective story is a perfect example: a problem is solved; there is resolution. Most of us do not confront what we fear; we hide and play it safe. This explains the hunger for stories, be they in books, films, soap operas or reality TV shows: secret fears are confronted and overcome.

I have oversimplified outrageously, but I believe that for many writers the process of sitting down and writing is also, like story structure, a confrontation with the enemy: self-knowledge, not only in the sense of revealing oneself but in conquering doubts over one’s ability. In practical terms writing should be easy, you just sit down (or stand naked at a lectern) and do it. But it isn’t easy. Steven Pressfield in The War of Art puts it bluntly:

“How many of us have become drunks and drug addicts, developed tumours and neuroses, succumbed to painkillers, gossip, and compulsive smart-phone use, simply because we don’t do that thing that our hearts, our inner genius, is telling us to? Resistance defeats us.”

I love the idea of writing, I want to write but hide from its practice, unless … unless I force myself to sit and write, probably awful stuff, for at least an hour. Then, miraculously, something happens – not always, it’s not that easy – and the awful stuff begins to make sense: it flows, ideas appear from everywhere, ideas that had been locked away, ideas locked away by me while I resisted and wasted my time, pour onto the page, ideas I didn’t know I’d had; plots change, characters change, and for a blessed few hours I am creating something, something worthwhile and I am enjoying writing. But that initial process of beginning – it’s hard, and I resist it much more often than I embrace it.

The truth is that writing is very hard work; you have to be dedicated and professional to keep going. Norman Mailer put it well:

“One must be able to do a good day’s work on a bad day, and indeed, that is a badge of honor decent professionals are entitled to wear.”

Apparently more than 80% of people say they want to write a book, but less than 1% do. Not all those would-be writers have the ability to write – The X Factor shows us that believing you have talent and actually possessing it are two very different things – but I’m sure there are many talented people among that group telling themselves every day that they will start that novel tomorrow or next week or after they’ve finished researching the history of Florentine art for that Renaissance murder mystery they’ve been planning for five years. Steven Pressfield, straight as ever, gets right to it:

“We don’t just put off our lives today; we put them off till our deathbed.”

And GK Chesterton’s

“one way to do it”

his method of getting it done?

“Apply the seat of the pants to chair and remain there until it’s finished.”

I’m about to do just that, right after I’ve cleaned those windows, they’re filthy.