findingtimetowrite

Thinking, writing, thinking about writing…

Archive for the month “September, 2012”

Life-Changing Moments

Last weekend I went back for the first time in a decade to Cambridge for an alumni event. When I first got off the coach, I was bewildered by all the new buildings and shops, and promptly got lost.  Later on, I found my department and slowly succumbed to the enchantment of the beautiful architecture and the splendour of the autumnal gardens.  Cambridge was only a brief experience for me: just one year. But its aftermath is still hammering through me, still shaking my being. Many believe that their university experience changed their life.  In my case, it really did change my life forever: opened my mind, changed my career, broke down a marriage, seduced me into love and heartbreak.

My Cambridge was not the one of medieval courts and toga parties, nor of rowing at dawn and wild student pranks.  Not even sustained intellectual debate and lifelong friendships.  Although I encountered all this and more, Cambridge meant much more to me than that.

You have to remember where I came from.  For a while, I had attended an old-fashioned English school abroad, a school where grammar and spelling were revered, where I was taught to speak much like the Queen in her plummier moments, where Cambridge and Oxford were regarded as the pinnacles of human achievement.  A good deal of that washed over my head.  As a grandchild of peasants and the niece of factory-workers, I never quite understood the class system and snobbery implicit in the Oxbridge privilege.  Instead, I asociated it with intellectual achievement (and included Harvard, Yale, Sorbonne and a few others in that list).  I came from a culture that was fiercely proud and in awe of its intelligentsia, even as it spied on them and locked them up for insubordination.  It was to this closed and fearful culture that I returned as a teenager.  And I found it hard.

Brains mattered, I was told.  Yet what I saw, day after day, was that what was really required was monkey-like cleverness, ability to memorise, repeat, be quick and juggle numbers.  Intelligence did not mean curiosity, imagination, asking questions or using simple sentences.  I was being forced back into the mould. So I retreated into my dream world.  Somewhere, there was a magic place where brains are allowed to develop and soar, where they are admired fully in all their colourful variety and glory.

In 1989 walls came tumbling down across Europe and we gradually had the opportunity to see Cambridge for ourselves.  And this is what I saw: that there were fantastic and mediocre brains there, as everywhere else.  That the world of rich ideas and interdisciplinary connections is so powerful in its beauty, so endlessly inspiring, that I wanted to wrap myself up in its cocoon forever.

I began to realise that the well-maintained borders and lawns of the Cambridge colleges, the noble architecture, the self-sufficient simplicity of college rooms, the take-as-much-as-you-need social interaction in dining halls are all designed to protect and nurture the life of the spirit.  You can clearly see the monastic origin of these great universities.  And it’s not hard to understand the urge to devote yourself to that path of single focus.  I have so often yearned for this ideal, but messy life got in the way.

Twenty years on, I have finally understood and accepted that I will never have the peaceful don’s life for which my passion and my gifts might have been best suited.  Sometimes you just cannot follow your passion in life, but Cambridge did clarify for me what my passion was.  Above all, it gave me oxygen to feed my life.

All I need to do, as I rummage through the imperfect, often overwhelming, shapeless lump of mud and gemstones which is my life, is to find that Cambridge state of mind, that inner peace, that source of oxygen which brings forth my best ideas and my most honest self.

 

Girl, Interrupted (by Words and More Words)

This month, and, above all, this past week, I have had to shed my creative self like a snake-skin and slither back into my smooth professional self.  There are many things I enjoy about my work (performing in front of a mostly attentive audience, having my opinions mostly respected, getting paid most of the time).  Yet I can see that it is not conducive to writing.

So diametrically opposed to writing is this kind of itinerant consulting life (there, I’ve said it, that’s what I am!), that I found myself struggling to write even those book reviews I have been planning to write for the past 2-3 weeks.  Not just because of travelling, being tired, faulty or overpriced wireless networks at hotels… but because my words have all been used up.

When you use persuasive language, corporate jargon and the left side of the brain exhaustively, it becomes nearly impossible to fall in love with words again. I no longer want to play with them, soothe them with a lullaby, tease them with a come-hither look, bend them to my will or surprise them and myself.  All I want is blessed silence.

And escapist books to read.

Accidental Poet

Most of the spam is blatantly spammy and instantly forgettable.  But every now and then something appears which is so random, so illogical, so surreal, that it almost qualifies as poetry. Here is one I only mildly edited earlier:

‘Invest in your intention, dreams, enthusiasm, vision. Your zigzag enlivens you. Madness would activate dancing, sure enough, humanitarian would unite me with friends less fortunate. It’s first-class dance, then, and you advance, you dance. It’s approximately communal ventures. Though you’re up first, you shilly-shally awhile. Wind up your marvellous conversation, strike your aligned activity! Leap, you close by people, back in time! Find yourself, mettle your business, benefit theirs.  Today, from now on, more than ever, scrape stirs you go off at a tangent. And it soothes you and nurtures your essence.’

So, if a computer can write something approximating poetry, what should we make of automatic writing?  This is the unedited flow of pen on paper, when a writer connects with their subconscious and feels that their words are being ‘dictated’ to them by some external source. French historian and literary critic Taine and Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa claim to have used this form of writing for some of their work.

Yes, there are some extreme examples of automatic writing – such as Martian alphabets and spiritualist messages from the Beyond.  But what I am referring to here are those words that seem to come out of nowhere  – in my case at four in the morning more often than not. I stumble out of the bedroom to a quiet corner, trying not to wake up the rest of the house, and scribble down something in haste, in fury, desperate not to miss the Muse.  In the early hours of the morning it seems brilliant, truly poetic, very profound…

In broad daylight, however… it’s about as good as the random string of words above, produced by robots. I save a phrase here, a word there, perhaps more the feel of the poem or story than the actual wording. What I do find is that it helps me to access a part of myself that usually lies dormant, a part that exists beyond the endless professional reports, shopping lists, laundry duties and trying to coordinate everybody’s schedule.  It gives me ideas.

No. That’s not true – I never experience a shortage of ideas. If anything, I suffer from the tendency of chasing after too many hares and ideas simultaneously.  So what it does give me is silence, recollection, a reminder that you need to make time to listen to yourself.

So, if you want to try automatic writing (nowadays better known as ‘free writing‘, as described by Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg), here is one way to get started:

1) Find a quiet time of day (or night), when you are not likely to be disturbed.  Find a quiet, comfortable place and get all your writing materials to hand, so that you do not need to interrupt yourself to search for a new pen or more paper.  Handwriting works better than laptops, but if you are so uncomfortable with notebook and pen that you would get distracted, then use your computer.

2) Most manuals say you should set a time limit.  I don’t actually do that myself. Or, rather I set myself a minimum of 10 minutes – but if the Muse grabs me by the throat and forces me to write for longer, who am I to argue with her?

3) Don’t worry about what you are going to say, or how you say it: grammar, spelling, punctuation, editing as you go along.  Again, I don’t quite stick to this rule: if I feel like crossing something out and rewriting, I will.  But if I am crossing out everything and rewriting the same phrase again and again – then that’s a definite No-no!

4) Once you’ve finished, set it aside for a few hours, maybe a day.  Then go back to it and see what you can keep, what new thoughts it has triggered.  Is there anything in what you have produced that you would like to explore further?

And if you have found a rare precious word, an accidental couple forged in beauty or distress, if you glimpsed some hidden treasure…  be happy, be realistic and keep on digging!

Or, to mix metaphors in a bout of automatism, it takes a lot of churning to make butter…

 

The Greatness of Empire

Singularly inappropriate perhaps for a Monday morning, when we are all ready to attach a new week of work and challenges.  The sun is shining, I am feeling pretty chipper on the whole, but there is always a part of me that responds anxiously to world news…

 

Once the spleen is vented out

When the ghosts are bed to rest

If the sorrow finds its match –

we shall desist.

 

With the seas sucked dry of ripples

Where secret forests live, unfold,

As each phrase falls on waxen ears –

We slacken, curled.

 

An attempt, a jealous grope this,

To woo the caverns of our mind.

Remote echo, no light to blind

The smouldering ruins of our bliss.

Fun on Friday: Writers’ Studies

If you don’t know me by now… you should know that I have a bit of a fixation with property.  Not in the sense of buying or selling or owning more than one house (well, the bank owns that one, but you know what I mean). Just that I am the kind of person who always picks up estate agents’ brochures in any picturesque town I happen to be passing through…  Or peer in at shutterless or curtainless windows when I go for evening walks… Or buy interior design magazines in languages I don’t even understand, because I can look at the pictures for ages…

And of course my favourite room in a house is the study or library or writer’s bolthole.  So here are some gorgeous ones to brighten up our weekend!

These first four images are courtesy of http://www.decoist.com/.

Study

Gillian Slovo’s study, courtesy of The Guardian’s series on Writers’ Rooms.

Mikael Kennedy, courtesy of  the project  An Afternoon With

Justin Cartwright, courtesy of The Guardian’s series on Writers’ Rooms. Gotta love a sofa in the study!

I really tried to take a picture of my own study for comparison, but I’m afraid it is too long and narrow to fit in!

The Outsider

 

Work commitments are taking over my life at present, so I don’t have much time to write or even think about interesting blog post topics.  So here is a poem I wrote a couple of weeks ago. Does anyone else keep on changing a poem every time they look at it?  I never seem to be able to find a final version for them.

I wish my parents had built me in the selfish version,
not taught me to think of others, nor walk in their shoes.
I wish they’d told me to hold out for Jimmy Choos
and that worth is indeed measured in status and cents.

I wish they’d taught me to interrupt and shout louder
to cover the world’s cacophony,
that my views are more important and right than anyone else’s in the room,
not always to listen and ponder in the shallows of impartiality,
to see the world in black and white instead of always turning the coin over
to check the other side.
And why, oh why always give second chances, three and four? Turn other cheeks?

I wish I did not feel tugs of guilt at each morsel
thrown out, not used to feed the starving child.
I wish those wide eye, distended bellies would not haunt my cupboards,
nor air miles prevent me buying sweet fruit I know I’d love.
I wish I’d never been introduced to Patience, Prudence and Humility,
three sisters who’ve slaked me of my appetite to win,
murdered my ambition, till faintest echoes of boasting
make me sneer, laugh and shiver.

Yet disdain is all fine and good.
No one cares, disdained by me.
Adulated by masses, emboldened by success,
They fail, repeat, never learn, repent no more.
While I nurse, bruised and battered, an ego like an unboiled egg,
integrity left orphan in a world I fail to fathom.

Chasing Your Dreams

When Theo got off the train in Arles,

the stink and noise hit his nostrils and ears,

in cacophonous attack on Boulevard des Lices.VanGoghCafe

‘Of course with a name like Vince you have to paint,’

He told his brother,

‘And all summer you’ve been squiggling caricatures  in the square,

when tourists come to oogle at the little that is left

of that greater misunderstood one, the one with just one ear.

But now it is November, nights are closing in.

The city is deserted, fuel costs going up.

Come home to the Midwest, brother,

forget your midlife crisis!’

 

Yellow House Van GoghBut Vince turned eyes on him which saw beyond alimony payments,

eyes that had wandered amongst stars,

made accomplice by the wind,

protected by history.

‘You have a duty to follow your dream,

your passion,

and mediocrity has nothing to do with it.’

All that Fuss about David Foster Wallace

A few months ago, when I started getting serious about writing (again), someone pointed me in the direction of a website called ‘I Write Like’. Clever little robots analyse a sample of your writing (in English) and tell you which writer (living or dead) you most resemble. Imagine my surprise when it came up with ‘David Foster Wallace’ after I cut and pasted a chapter of my WIP.  Surprising, because: 1) my novel is crime fiction, and 2) I had never heard of this author.  (Yes, my grasp of contemporary American fiction is a little shaky.)  So I ignored this first result and submitted another text.

Same result.

By now, I was getting convinced that this was the default setting of the website, no matter what your input was.  So I tried a poem.  And got Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  What does one of the world’s funniest books have in common with my rather moody and depressing poetry?  Anybody’s guess!

So, although I was unconvinced by the analytical tool, this website did make me curious about David Foster Wallace.  I started reading up on him.  And boy, was there a lot of stuff written about him!  Most recently, a biography by D.T. Max entitled Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story.  This, in turn, led to an outburst by Bret Easton Ellis on Twitter, culminating in him calling David Foster Wallace ‘the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation’.

Well, with an intro to like that, I just had to read the man himself!  Wouldn’t you?  (I am cheating a little bit with the timeline here: in fact, I had bought ‘Infinite Jest’ just before the summer holidays and intended to polish it off during my inactive, very long-seeming days on that nondescript beach in Greece that my husband’s family calls home.) I am about halfway through this doorstopper of a book: page 508 of its 1079 pages (including endnotes). And I can tell you two things for sure:

1) This book is not made for beach reading (although it is good for dipping in and out of).

2) I do not write like him at all.

Or at least I hope I don’t. Not that I disliked his style.  I was, by turns, amused, fascinated, bemused, indifferent, enthusiastic, critical, passionate and infuriated.  It is not an easy read and you have to be in the mood for it – which is difficult to sustain over that many pages.  It is a book breathtaking in its ambition: to capture all of contemporary American society, which is why it’s probably best read in several sittings, across many months.  Although individual passages glowed with insight and humour, although there was beautiful writing which made me want to reread and quote, I did find the cumulative effect rather wearisome.  There, I said it!  Does that mean I am siding with Bret Easton Ellis?

No, not really, because I don’t understand why he is attacking David Foster Wallace himself for the halo of sentimentality and mantle of sainthood that his readers and followers have bestowed on him. It’s like accusing Van Gogh of commercialisation because his ‘Sunflowers’ sell so well, or Shakespeare of insisting that people use his newfangled word inventions.

I may have no wish to write like David Foster Wallace myself, but I can still enjoy reading him (in small gulps).  If we only liked reading people like ourselves, the world would be a very bland place. I find some of the imitators of David Foster Wallace tiresome and pretentious.  I find all imitators tiresome, unless it’s a clever sequel or deliberate satire. And I dislike literary pretentiousness, so well satirised in the character of Monica in Woody Allen’s ‘To Rome with Love’. I am sure more have praised ‘Infinite Jest’ and its author than have actually read it or him.  Isn’t that what happens with other famous works such as Ulysses, Remembrance of Things Past and The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman?

Which, by the way, all three happen to be heartbreaking works of staggering genius.  Not easy, but stick with them!

* Gorgeous new graphic design for Tristram Shandy at Fast Company: http://www.fastcodesign.com/1663094/wanted-tristram-shandy-gets-a-stunning-graphic-makeover

 

Crime Fiction Fan

On the page she strides boldly

through gore, spattered, flung

arms dramatic, brain sharpishly screwed on.

No suspect is spared, no plotline too raw,

she ventures where others gasp, look away.

And she knows at least sixty ways

to dispose of a lover.

 

Yet the glimpse of a needle

makes her gibber to nurses.

She watches crime on TV through

chinked fingers and wine,

she dithers at shadows, jumps at

rustles in the road. A floorboard

creaking in the night sends her diving.

 

Scurry, scurry, little paws,

the horror of that nib on paper!

 

 

http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

As we turn to writing again…

Let’s face it, for many of us the summer did not involve quite as much writing as we had planned, because of childcare responsibilities.  Frustrating though it may have felt at times, I do know in my heart of hearts that downtime does have its uses!  I can see it in the way the children relate to me now, and I swear I can feel new paths forming between my neurons.

But now it’s autumn, it’s the start of the schoolyear, it’s Vive la Rentrée, as the French call it.  A season when I always feel new energy and new resolutions coming along…

So here are some of my favourite inspirational writing thoughts to get you in the mood:

1) Geoff Dyer (author of the wonderfully if tongue-twistedly entitled ‘Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi’):  ‘Never ride a bike with the brakes on. If something is proving too difficult, give up and do something else. Try to live without resort to per­severance. But writing is all about ­perseverance.’

2) Neil Gaiman: ‘The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.’

3) AL Kennedy: ‘Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go.  Remember writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.’

4) Hilary Mantel: ‘You can’t give your soul to literature if you’re thinking about income tax.’  N.B. So that’s why it isn’t working for me at the moment…!

5) Joyce Carol Oates: ‘Keep a light, hopeful heart. But ­expect the worst.’

6) Helen Simpson: ‘The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as “Shut up and get on with it.”‘

7) Jeanette Winterson: ‘Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.’

8) Franz Kafka: ‘ You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice…’

9) Simone de Beauvoir: ‘Change your life today. Don’t gamble on the future, act now, without delay.’

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