Tag Archives: writing about writing

How not to write a book in 30 days

This week my eye was caught by an informative and amusing interview in the Paris Review with Geoff Dyer, ‘The Art of Nonfiction No. 6′.

Paris_Review_Issue_207_160

Closer examination reveals it to be taken from the Winter 2013 issue, which goes to show how well I keep up with the literary times. But, still! It is immensely worth reading as it pretty much covers all the writing advice a person might need, without the bother and expense of a Masters in Creative Writing.

Why not begin with this gem:

Beyond the effort and hours one puts in at the desk, I’m also aware that when I’ve written travel pieces. I’m out there wherever it happens to be, looking around, having to notice stuff, and I find that tiring, rather dread it, actually… I love not having to notice stuff—and, even more than not noticing, I love not having to articulate what I’ve not noticed. Whereas somebody like Updike seemed to live every day at an amazing level of noticingness.

Like a group of people watching a live event through the screen of their recording smartphones, to be constantly required to notice things seems to me to keep the writer at one remove. That can be handy at times, but it is also preferable to float along without worrying about taking notes, word counts and how events will be interpreted later.

Mr Dyer is also refreshingly honest about his own writing process:

There’s no way of getting around the fact that the first however many months are going to be no fun at all, and not much of that material is going to end up in print. In an ideal world you would skip those first three months and just start at month four or whatever, but you can’t.

Oh, if only. I have also found myself thinking similar thoughts to these recently:

I’m so revolted by writers taking themselves seriously that, as a kind of protest. I’ve deprioritized the role of writing in my life. I do it when I’ve not got anything better to do—and even then I often do nothing instead.

In amongst all the online forums, constant #amwriting updates and courses offering to sell the secrets of literary success, this comes as a breath of fresh air. In our interconnected world, we can all probably relate to part of this:

I find it incredibly difficult to settle and I have very limited powers—if we can dignify it with that word—of concentration, so at first I’m up and out of my chair every few minutes. Later on I can stay at the desk for longer periods until eventually I don’t even have to force myself to stay there. The general process is just to splurge stuff out, without being particularly worried about the spelling or anything. Just splurging to make sure there’s something there. And then I begin knocking it into shape both at the level of the sentence and the overarching structure. But that initial phase is the one I increasingly hate, so I try to get it done as quickly as possible, in the five-minute bursts that I’m capable of putting in at the desk before I get up to do something else.

Given that Geoff Dyer is no slouch at getting books finished and into bookshops, one suspects a little exaggeration here.  However, it is comforting to learn that – among the practitioners of 1,000 words per day targets and the approaching NaNoNiNu, where writers are encouraged to bang something out in 30 days – there is room for some ‘faffing around’. Any decent writing or research process should require an amount of faffing around, one feels. While it is not good to linger in the quagmires of faff for too long, singularity of purpose can so often lead us headlong into a brick wall.

There is more of the same good stuff in the interview, on the processes involved in writing individual books and how he got started as a writer. Overlook the fact that it isn’t from the PR’s latest issue, more smouldering than hot off the press, as it does contain an awful lot of great writing advice, all for a few thousand quid less than a university creative writing course.

 

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That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick by Ellin Stein

If they say the best books are like a conversation with the author, then ‘That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick – The National Lampoon and the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream’ by (disclosure: friend of ten minutes hate) Ellin Stein goes one better. A conversation where the author allows you to eavesdrop on some of the funniest men and women America produced in the at times quite dour latter half of the last century.

That's Not Funny That's Sick Ellin Stein

How the Lampooners went from Harvard grads to kings and queens of Hollywood via a steady conquering of print, radio, stand-up comedy, improv theatre, TV and movies, wielding an influence far beyond the things they actually created themselves, is a heck of a tale. Crafted by Ellin Stein and including one-on-one interviews conducted over many years, it is fair to say it crackles off the page, with all the intrigue and derring-do, deal-making and double-crossing you would expect from such a talented gang.

While it seems safe to say that The National Lampoon’s reputation for counter-culture activity was perhaps over-stated – mostly by themselves – the book doesn’t shy away from calling them out on it, quoting one contributing editor’s view that,

It was a commercial venture from the start, and subversion was the product being sold.

The parallels with the music industry are clear and Stein’s narrative is adept at placing the magazine in the context of the politics and culture as the idealistic late ’60s becomes the cynical ’70s and block-busting ’80s. I was reminded of Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, lamenting of the money men:

…they will ruin rock ‘n’ roll and strangle everything we love about it.

It is not always clear if the right subjects were being lampooned, with certain editors claiming that anything and anyone was a legitimate target and still others stating their attempts to work from a ‘base of integrity’. That base was still so firmly rooted in the white, male, college frat-dwelling mindset that the guys had a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that non-male, non-white, non-Ivy League types could also produce humour. (In case you wondered where present-day Hollywood gets it from…)

In the UK, writers tend to work alone and the teams that are locked in a room until the hilarity is honed are largely unknown to us. Perhaps this adds to the Lampoon mythology and brings it closer to the legendary sporting teams we love to laud. It is clear that what Stein calls the Lampoon’s ‘gym of the intellect’ fostered a competitiveness that spurred some individuals into levels of fame that can be difficult for such sensitive types to contend with. The push and pull between the mercurial types and the ones who have to manage their ‘output’ is painfully and truthfully detailed.

There are some books where the epilogues are to be skipped or glanced at, but not here. As the roll of honour lists, there is not an element of the media that remains untouched by an NL alumni. Not all have remained in comedy, with everything from serious drama to children’s cookery books making use of their talents. Given their starting point in satire it is perhaps strange that so much of mainstream American cultural life wouldn’t exist without them – although perhaps it takes more to erase that Ivy League destiny than growing one’s hair long and lighting a joint…

A fascinating snapshot of the era and a kick up the bum, or ass as our American cousins would say, for creative readers from what must be one of the most prolific groupings of writers and performers ever gathered. They would probably make faces at any use of the word ‘inspirational’, but tough. It is both an inspiration and a real pleasure to listen in on their tales.

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A reading chair

If I was a king, I would have a chair purposefully crafted out of volumes of books. Books that I have read through the years. Books that now I find are inside of me.

The iconic Iron Throne in the infamous television drama, Game of Thrones (adapted from the novels by George R. R. Martin), is allegedly forged from 1,000 swords. I guess this is the source that inspired me. But alas, I am not a king at this particular moment in time, so I have settled for a leather black studded Art Deco-style chair. The type of seat that will improve with age, the more battered and worn it looks.

The Reading Chair 2

I was inspired to purchase a designated seat to just read in after enjoying horror master Stephen King’s book simply titled, ‘On Writing’.

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things: read a lot and write a lot.

So read I where I can, but I have a favourite place: the blue chair in my study. So far in 2014, I have read the graphic horrors penned in GRIMMS FAIRY TALES, been to prison and stolen books in 1930’s Paris with JEAN GENET, danced the Charleston at THE GREAT ‘Jay’ GATSBY’s and warded off stray donkeys from Betsey Trotwood’s lawn in DAVID COPPERFIELD. Who knows what adventures await me next?

The Reading Chair

Quentin Crisp said cinema is The Forgetting Chamber, where you forget all your daily troubles and dissolve into the cinema screen. To have my very own chair to escape into the world of literature is essential for sanity, health and well-being. In fact, I think Schopenhauer said it best:

I’ve never known any trouble that an hour’s reading didn’t assuage.

I don’t know where this overgrown bush of books has come from; I cannot resist picking up the odd title as I go. I am sure there are worst habits to have.

The Book Bush

Thankfully, Stephen King agrees with my reading addiction:

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.

desk

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Viva Frida!

I like to read and write in bed. A comfortable mattress can at times be equally as productive as a sturdy desk. A pad perched up on my knees, drafting, crafting. My mantra has always been: graft equals craft.

One of my idols, Frida Kahlo, used her bedroom – sometimes out of necessity. There she would sketch and paint images that came out of her dreamscape. A cocktail of her fear and inner thoughts. Breton famously  described the work of Frida as

a ribbon around a bomb.

She was used to suffering from early age when she contracted polio and then at 18 was injured in a horrific bus accident, where she sustained injuries that affected her throughout her lifetime. Her personal life was turbulent and her relationship with soul mate Diego Riveria was a tempestuous one. The creative couple was known as ‘the elephant and the dove’, a Beauty and the Beast-like pairing.

Her entire catalogue of work is a testament to my personal belief that art has a transformative element; turning negativity into something positive. Be it a writing pad, a canvas, a block of wood or clay, an artist’s role is to take experience, push it, question it and put it out there. Her self-portraiture is painted with a pallet of wit, raw honesty, brutality, pain, cruelty, passion and empowerment. Or as she simply put it,

I paint my reality.

This inspiring lady had a resilience that pumped through her blood.

Five months after her accident she posed in a family photograph, wearing a grey suit, a practical element to disguise her injuries. A controversial, provocative dandy, taking centre stage in the composition captured by her photographer father, Guillerno. Almost like the son he never had.

The artist used her own body as a canvas, painting the massive plaster cast that bound her torso during her recovery from the accident. She later took on the Mexican dress of long skirts, heavy jewellery, fringed shawls and a crown.

fulang chang and I

FULANG, CHANG and I (1937), illustrates Kahlo at the height of her beauty, an image from the sensual world.

Kalho Frida - A few small nips passionately in love - 1935

A FEW LITTLE PRICKS (1935), inspired by a morbid newspaper report, she used this story to distance herself from the real life trauma of the recent betrayal of Diego sleeping with her sister Cristina. The victim in the composition has her sister’s features and the man with the knife resembles Diego, while Frida herself imagined that she herself had commits the murder.

little girl with a death mask

LITTLE GIRL WITH A DEATH MASK (1938), inspired by the native style of popular Mexican art.  A person clad in a traditional white death mask, holds a sunflower (tagete) traditionally used during the day of the dead, celebrated on the second of November. The flower is meant to light the path for the souls of the dead as they make their way back to their ancestors. On the floor there is a jaguar mask in papier mache, another ritual accompaniment at this annual festival.

the-wounded-deer-1946

THE WOUNDED DEER (THE LITTLE DEER) 1946, in this image Kahlo places her own visage on the animal and it conveys an expression of nobility, an air of dignity, in the crown of antlers. The deer has been pierced with nine arrows, a slow kill to symbolise the emotional pain of Diego’s repeated infidelity.

I paint self-portraits because I am the person I know best.

She did not solely use the medium of canvas painting; her diaries also contain sketches, reflections, watercolours, lyrics and poems. A candid, reflection on her personal creative process, her childhood, political sensibilities and obsession with Diego. The diary spans from 1944-54 and is a series of random memories and thoughts with no attention to chronology. The manuscript is a turbulent bag of emotions.

Aztec Rebirth

Diego beginning

Diego constructor

Diego my baby

Diego my boyfriend

Diego my painter

Diego my lover

Diego my husband

Diego my friend

Diego my mother

Diego my father

Diego my son

Diego= me=

Diego Universe

Diversity in unity

Why do I call him My

Diego? He never was

Nor ever will be mine

He belongs to himself

The legacy left behind by Frida Kahlo is a collection of paradox, she is both victim and heroine, suffering and successful, but above all human. Essentially painting her own life.

VIVA Frida!

viva frida

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The Charming Depravity of Tennessee Williams

North and South meet as ten minutes hate‘s guest writer John Maguire considers Tennessee Williams.

The autobiography of Thomas Lanier Williams, otherwise known as Tennessee, is almost written in his own blood, chronicling his creative and personal journey. He did not just make emotional, thought-provoking and entertaining drama, he lived it.

He wrote some of the most iconic 20th Century pieces of theatre, among them The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Rose Tattoo.

Work!!the loveliest of all four letter words, surpassing even the importance of love most times.

Flirtatious, tragic, witty, annoying, all adjectives that can be applied to his character, Blanche DuBois, from the brutally raw triumph, A Streetcar Named Desire. Equally though, these very terms can also be applied to the late Tennessee, the very creator of this tragic heroine.

Behind every monster there is a Dr. Frankenstein working on the creation’s wiring, circuitry and emotive feeling. If  we are totally honest, we all have a little bit of Blanche in us, deep in the recesses of the human soul, there is that vulnerability, confusion and desperation. In the character of Blanche, Tennessee predicted how indeed his own life would eventually play out, he inevitably almost became her.

The 1977 musing on his life is a frank, to the point, tale. He is dangerously self-aware.

I was a writer, and consequently a kook

It is a welcome read at this particular period in the publishing calendar.  Traditionally, the book market will be awash with many a self-penned (or ghost written) reveal. The United Kingdom this week has Morrissey’s simply titled, Autobiography, Alex Ferguson’s imaginatively titled, My Autobiography and One Direction’s Where We Are, all in the Top Ten sales charts.

To open the proceedings of his own life dramas, the celebrated playwright does not try to disguise the reason he has decided to put ink to paper, it’s all about the coinage, he is solely in it for the money.

tennesse williams typewriter

With his plays and controversial short stories, The Inventory of Fontana Bella and Desire and the Black Masseur, he had always used the fictions to curtain his real life shenanigans. Now he does not just drop the mask, he peels it off literally.

The form he chooses to narrate his anecdotes is free association. Time is blended, present and past entwined, in the pages of this work. The enfant terrible of British theatre, Steven Berkoff, also used this structure in his excellent Free Association.

Life is made up of moment to moment occurrences in the nerves and the perceptions and, try as you may, you can’t commit them to the actualities of your own history.

The journey is decadent and depraved, taking in his childhood in Mississippi, to St Louis and New York. One thing that leaves the reader after being at this somewhat autopsy of Williams’ life is the ingenious way he poeticises the everyday.

I finished the work before 7 am, awaiting a bus, sometimes known as a ‘tramp chariot’ in these here parts. I immediately found myself seeing things  with a more poetic perspective. A hovering black raven over grass became a black piece of floating silk over a sea of shining green emeralds. The sky scape over the council houses now looked like a canvas of purple pink candy floss clouds.

READ this biography for the wit alone, for the poetry but we do not really need the shock tactics and graphic hints at his fookery.

Sexuality is an emanation, as much in the human being as the animal. Animals have seasons for it. But for me it was a round the calendar thing.

On the other hand it must be remembered, society has become a great deal more open and liberal in the last thirty years. That is in some countries, places like Russia need to really get with the programme. As Stonewall fantastically put it, some people are gay, get over it.

Flashback to 1977, to be overtly talking about same-sex relations and a battle with drugs and liquor takes some courage. Alas, his sad descent that can physically be seen in his writing style in these pages is quite unsettling.  He yearns for a companion as he is sick of promiscuous fast food sex; his friend suggests he picks someone up to which he honestly replies,

There’s nothing emptier, nothing more embarrassing….each time a little bit of your heart is chipped off and thrown into a gutter.

Mr. T.W’s Argentinian tango with Mr. Alcohol and Mr. Narcotics is revealed in the somewhat rambling and self-pitying, towards the final act of the book.

It can be difficult to follow and at times he is like a sizzled Uncle at a wedding, he can just go on and on, unpredictable, all around the park with his explanations sometimes not linked, only to then slap the reader with a treasure in his last phrase, or a gem of wit. He is at his most amusing when he is being catty without realising it,

She was a voluptuous piece and he was voluptuous too, and when you say a man, a bridegroom is voluptuous; it’s not a compliment to him.

By the time Tennessee was rewarded with fame and credibility for his craft, he had managed for years to keep running from the dogs of depression, they may have been consistently nipping at his ankles, but when he did start to slow down, they took a chunk out of his inner core, then the self-doubt and the lack of confidence managed to invade him.

Other creatives do manage to either realise the dogs can be tamed – or in the drastic cases put down – but unfortunately Tennessee Williams was a little blinded by the poisons discussed, so instead the hounds were empowered.

Sometimes I wonder if it is healthy for a writer to use their own emotional stock in his or her work. For I guess every time a play is performed, or story read out, the plaster is ripped off and the wound becomes more intense creating a deeper scar. Possibly the case with this Southern scribe.

tallulah-bankhead-018

The tale is entertaining, both comic and tragic with tragic a cast of glittering stars, including Andy Warhol, Tallulah Bankhead, Brando, Bette Davis…….on and on the list goes, just like a Tennessee anecdote.

williams warhol

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On trend

image

From the Pre-Spring 2013 edition of i-D magazine, courtesy of Givenchy comes word of the latest trend in high fashion: babies. Forget handbags, watches and bangles – the only thing to have hanging from your arm this Spring is a small person.

Luckily I put in my order for this highly sought-after item last year, so my son made his debut in time for me to be on trend. He has been as delightful, entertaining and – on occasion – as bewildering as everyone tells you children are. That said, a late night reading of some Sherlock Holmes stories from the Kindle app on my phone apart, we haven’t been doing much reading together yet.

I am mindful of Cyril Connelly’s often quoted words:

There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.

But also of mothers who haven’t let the small person stop them writing when they can, perhaps J. K. Rowling and Monica Ali being the most notable recent examples.

I was in hospital when I found out that my last post ‘A desk of one’s own‘ was being selected for the Freshly Pressed site. Reading the many comments left there by readers, to which I am determined to reply before too long, made for a brief holiday back to life before motherhood. This new role means that updates to ten minutes hate might be infrequent, might not always be written by me, but will be forthcoming. Even if they are tapped out on a mobile during naptime, like this one.

Thanks for reading!

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A desk of one’s own

Writer Erinna Mettler sparked my interest this week with her post on ‘Desk Envy’. A desk is such a fundamental part of a writer’s equipment, yet so difficult to perfect, it is no wonder that there are thousands of pictures like the ones of famous writers’ workplaces in the post which can inspire the green-eyed-monster. Space in the home is at such a premium – certainly in the UK, even more so in Japan – that for most of us the dream of a quiet room with a huge desk covered with piles of essential writerly clutter and (crucially!) all of one’s own must remain unindulged.

Still, we can dream. I was lucky enough to spend some time in the Lake District recently, with hints of spring breaking through the winter gloom all around. The hotel had this lovely number sitting in a corridor seemingly unused and unloved, except by the chambermaids for heaps of fresh linen mid-change.

hotel desk

Contemplating all that space for half-scrawled notes and pages torn out of newspapers could give me palpitations. Drawers overloaded with notebooks, both filled and still to be used, cartridges and half-full bottles of ink, because this desk would go so well with my favourite pens… until my thoughts crash into the likely shipping costs to get the thing to Tokyo and realise it isn’t to be.

The reality for most of us is that writing space has to exist wherever we find it. When I lived in London I would write sitting on the bed, a cushion behind me and one under the knees, laptop finely balanced, in a pose that would strike dread into the heart of any physiotherapist or yoga teacher. Although it did keep me paying the bills to have my poor spine straightened out again. Having to clear away the detritus which somehow accumulates around any working writer – take the picture of Einstein ‘s desk for evidence – before I could go to sleep was always such a disheartening thought that writing into the early hours became the norm.

It wasn’t until I moved to Japan that I came into possession of a dedicated writing desk. A low wooden table acquired from a neighbour who was moving on, it was the first piece of furniture that I owned after arriving and all the more loved for that. Writing in bed continued, of course, as well as curled up in a chair, but owning a desk was a step up and great things were sure to follow, I was convinced. This is my first Japanese desk, looking far too neat, which means it was probably tidied for the picture:

first writing desk in Japan

Of course, it wouldn’t turn out to be the perfect writing desk, otherwise this post would end here. The difficulty, entirely of my own creation, was that there was so much of Japan to explore beyond those walls that I barely spent any time within range of the desk. Writing again became something to do in cafés, on trains, at work, or in the park. Anywhere, it seemed, but at the dedicated space that had so fortuitously been granted.

For my next apartment, things would have to change. After coming into possession of another donated desk and chair, then finding a wonderful place to locate them – overlooking a neighbour’s well-stocked garden – combined with living closer to the distractions of the city, suddenly writing time was almost abundant. Who wouldn’t want to spend all of their free days here:

Tokyo desk

It is summer, hence the mosquito coil kept close to hand, but the air conditioning unit was right above the window and the fridge a short hop away. ten minutes hate became an unneglected website again, letters were penned and the following spring my book, The Teas That Bind, was written here. All punctuated with essential breaks for pots of tea and staring out of the window. The way the butterflies would dance through the sunshine as it dappled between the trees will stay with me forever.

But life moves on, time intrudes and I find myself between desks again. As ever, my reserve writing haunts are cafés and there is fun to be had attempting to track down a new favourite. Here is where Erinna Mettler surprises me a little, as she writes:

The words don’t really flow in public cafés. For a start off I usually bump into someone I know and then there’s the hovering waiting staff asking if I want a refill, or babies crying and if I drink too much coffee it costs a fortune and I keep needing the loo. The café has to be just right, it has to be big enough to hide in from friends and waiters, with tall ceilings and no piped music, and I prefer diverting decoration and real-fire cosiness.

Although it has been a long while since I was a resident of the same town,  my memories of it being full of serviceable writing cafés would be shattered if they had all been conquered by the big chains. In the same way that we fetishise desks, most writers probably have a picture in their head of the perfect writing café experience, my own heavily influenced by a visit to the actual table in Paris once used by this lady:

Simone de Beauvoir writing cafe

It is doubtful if she would be as prolific today, however, if she were attempting to write in the 21st century version of her home-from-home café, surrounded by loudly obnoxious tourists and gawping fan-girls such as myself.

Perhaps this is the lesson to learn from all this desk adulation: that the space itself is irrelevant. Make it the best, comfiest, happiest place it can be but don’t get too caught up with perfection. While perfection on the page should always be the goal, sometimes the means and the location of production will have to fall far short of the ideal. Sitting at the dream desk racked with writer’s block and indecision would be a far worse fate than that of being jammed into a tiny table at a terrible café with a mug of bad coffee scrawling note after note on napkins because there is no more space in your notebook.

As Hemingway knew,

the great thing is to last and get your work done

because what is created when your backside is in the chair is far more important than the quality leather cushion or cracked plastic that it rests upon. So even if you are lucky enough to achieve perfection in your surroundings, be sure to recall this advice from Stephen King:

It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.

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