STEINBECK’S WET AND MANGY MONGREL

I wrote a while ago about Steinbeck’s pencil obsession as described in his Journal of a Novel, the novel in question being East of Eden. At the end of it he writes a final letter to his editor Pascal Covici, which is described as the first draft of the dedication of the novel and  in it he quotes from the prologue of Don Quixote, describing Cervantes as the inventor of the modern novel. This is what Cervantes has to say:

“Idling reader, you may believe me when I tell you that I should have liked this book which is the child of my brain, to be the fairest, the sprightliest and the cleverest that could be imagined, but I have not been able to contravene the law of nature which would have it that like begets like …”

Steinbeck goes on to say something similar, that he has never ‘lost the weight of clumsiness, of ignorance, of aching inability…’ in the process of writing the book. And then continues:

“A book is like a man – clever and dull, brave and cowardly, beautiful and ugly. For every flowering thought there will be a page like a wet and mangy mongrel, and for every looping flight a tap on the wing and a reminder that wax cannot hold the feathers firm too near the sun.”

Photo by Luiz Fernando on Pexels.com

Writers are constantly negotiating this space between what they imagine they can create and what they end up creating and self-loathing and disappointment are a fairly common response to this gulf. It’s worth remembering that assessing one’s own work is a notoriously difficult thing to do. There’s also the irritating fact that finishing one book does not make writing the next one any easier. However accepting the likely presence of the wet and mangy mongrel may help you to keep going. 

I have never kept a diary of the writing of a book and I’ve been thinking recently that I might try. Even if it’s just a sentence a day. Even if I’m already 40,000 words in. But at what point of the day to write it? At the beginning? Or at the end? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll call it: Letters to the Wet and Mangy Mongrel. Truth is I’m more of a Heinz 57 type anyway. So maybe I’m half way there. Have you ever kept a diary of a creative project? What was the experience like? Was it helpful afterwards? Did you learn anything from it? 

DU MAURIER’S REBECCA

So have you heard? Netflix are doing a new version of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. There are going to be spoilers in this post, so be warned. Live long enough and you’ll have clocked up quite a few film and TV adaptations of this book and I have. There’s the Hitchcock directed Lawrence Olivier and Joan Fontaine film in 1940 (nice overcoat, Larry) with Judith Anderson playing Mrs Danvers. The 1979 TV series with the splendid Jeremy Brett and Joanna David with Anna Massey as Mrs Danvers and finally the 1997 mini-series with Charles Dance and Emily Fox. The recently late but very great Diana Rigg played Mrs Danvers in that one.

Here’s the trailer for the new one.

There might be some I’ve missed but now in 2020 here comes Armie Hammer and Lily James and KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS AS MRS DANVERS. Yes, the capitals WERE INTENTIONAL! I can’t wait. Before I even knew what enjoying schlocky, campy, gothic anythings might mean in terms of my … err… general personality, I loved Rebecca.

I probably read it first in my teens and its excellent teen fare because it’s so overheated and dramatic which is exactly what you are (ahem) I was, as a teenager. However, reading it again recently, I was struck by what an emotionally constipated monster Max is. He has to be because of the plot but even so he really is thoroughly dislikable. He also utters probably the least romantic proposal in all romantic literature:

‘I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.’

To which I would reply, channeling my inner drag queen:

“Say, no darling! Send him packing! Forget Manderley you’ll be far happier in Upton Snodsbury growing begonias and while you’re about it for god’s sake throw that broken ornament at Mrs Danver’s head. Just chuck it at her and then sack her. Sack her, sack her, sack her!

I also found the second Mrs de Winter (the unnamed heroine and ‘I’ of the book) began to pall because she’s so insecure and self-conscious and her thought processes are both neurotic and repetitive.

The more modern versions have brought in certain changes. Some actually cast the character of Rebecca and shoot scenes with her in flashback. She never appears in the book. There is also, not surprisingly, the introduction of sex scenes. Or there were in the Charles Dance one anyway. In the Hitchcock film it is made clear that Mrs Danvers has set fire to Manderley and dies in the ruins. This is fitting because Mrs Danvers is presented to us as ‘a witch’ so Hitchcock decided there was a neatness to ‘the witch burning’. In the book however she’s left the house before that happens. It will be interesting to see how the new version ends.

So here are the questions? Do you mind these kinds of changes? And who is your perfect idea of casting for Maxim de Winter, the heroine, and Mrs Danvers. One thing is certain the best Jack Favell, Rebecca’s seedy ‘favourite cousin’, is hands down George Sanders.

Here he is to cheer you up. You need to shift this along to about 3 minutes in and then you’ll get the bounder bounding through the window. You’ll also get Mrs Danvers materializing Star Trek style. Most unnerving! He’d make a good Max actually, although on the other hand I can’t see him playing someone so utterly lacking in self awareness and so humourless.

He’d probably be my favouite cousin too!

Incidentally Daphne du Maurier came from an interesting family but I’m going to blog about that some other time.

STEINBECK’S ‘PENCIL TRIFLING’

In 1951 while writing the first draft of East of Eden John Steinbeck wrote a letter a day to his editor Pascal Covici. It gives an insight into his thought processes, as he is actually writing the book. In one entry he said this:

It occurs to me that everyone likes or wants to be an eccentric and this is my eccentricity, my pencil trifling.

pencil pencils stationary equipment

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On March 23rd Good Friday Steinbeck was clearly obsessed not with plot or character but his pencils. 

You know I am really stupid. For years I have looked for the perfect pencil. I have found very good one’s but never the perfect one.  And all the time it was not the pencils but me. A pencil that is alright one day is no good another day. For example yesterday I used a special pencil, soft and fine, and it floated over the paper most wonderfully. So this morning I try the same kind. And they crack on me. Points break and all hell is let loose. This is the day when I am stabbing the paper.

He goes on to say he has three types of pencils for hard writing days and soft writing days. Then he says:

I have also some super soft pencils which I do not use very often because I must feel as delicate as a rose petal to use them. And I am not often that way.

As delicate as a rose petal – how lovely! One day stabbing and  breaking and one day soft and delicate. 

When in my normal writing position the metal of the pencil eraser touches my hand I retire that pencil. Then Tom and Catbird (his children) get them.

Oh, and how he loves his electric pencil sharpener:

I have never had anything that I used more and was more help to me. To sharpen the number of pencils I use every day … by a hand sharpener would not only take too long but would tire my hand out. 

As a writer, it is all too easy to fetishize the tools of your trade and indulge in magical thinking along the lines of:

“If only I had that beautiful note book/pen/pencil/cabin in the wood/tree house/house by the sea/lake/Lake Como actually, No, make that a palazzo in Venice/ oh no wait what about mountains? Actually just give me a garden, any garden.” Then I would write a masterpiece.

Looking out onto the street, outside my window I’m currently looking at a smashed TV screen and some plastic bottles rolling in the gutter. Usually I’m also looking at the backs of BT engineers fiddling with wires in those green street cabinets. I worry about their knees. The overground part of the District Line is about 15 meters away. I live on a main road. Someone is usually drilling somewhere very loudly along the road. This is where I’ve written all my books.

There’s the odd occasion when I long for a house with a sea view. When it was 35 degrees for a few days in a row this summer and they were tarmacking the road directly outside, the noise and the heat were such that I got to thinking about where I would live if I won the lottery – Iceland came to mind – but that’s rare. I write where I live like most writers, for better or worse.

And I’m sure you realise that I’d never do anything as crass as buy certain types of pencils thinking they might turn me into a Nobel Prize winner. Oh, no…

Whoops, I’m definitely feeling the metal here! One for the kiddies I think…

Steinbeck used Blackwing pencils and if you’d like to take a look at their very desirable website here it is. They even produced some lovely purple ones last month in honour of the passing of the 19th Amendment and women getting the vote in America on August 18th 1920.

What are the tools of your trade? Do you have a favourite?

HISTORICAL SLANG#3

Before lock down I did a few blogs on historical slang, so here we go again. This one is mid 17th century to mid 19th century.

To put a ….

beige and black hat near swimming pool

Photo by Jude Stevens on Pexels.com

Upon a …

Photo by Todd Trapani on Pexels.com

To put a swimming pool on a chicken? No, fool. To put a hat upon a hen: To attempt the impossible. I have to say this hen looks full of mischief and definitely not hatable or should that be hattable?

Since we’re on the subject have you ever tried returning a phone to Vodaphone? I had the misfortune to buy a Nokia 2.3 from them and it had the interesting foible of being fine when it came to calls to and from and fine when it came to texts out but would it receive a text? Oh, no it wouldn’t. The only text it received during a 72 hour period was regrettably the first time I entered a Vodaphone shop saying it wouldn’t receive them. So when I went back the following day, I had to throw a full raging fit, when I was told I had to speak to science and tech. ‘No, I said, I won’t. I have spoken to your virtual assistant the whole of yesterday afternoon.’ Then I went the full Italian, (no disrespect meant to Italians only admiration), I threw my hands in the air and pretty much shrieked, ‘I’m not moving until you sort this out for me. There’s something the matter with it. Give me another phone.’

At that point another Vodaphone employee looked across and said ‘What phone?’ and I said ‘Nokia 2.3,’ and he said ‘I had a man in here with that problem yesterday.’ And had he managed to sort it out? No, he hadn’t but there was something on their forum about it.So then I knew they could not fob me off with science and tech. So at this point the hat was almost on the hen’s head. It then took about two hours to get everything resolved because Tobi, the virtual assistant had done something he shouldn’t and the system wouldn’t refund me, until it did.

When it was all over the man who had been dealing with me looked at his boss and said he wanted a day working from home which made me feel slightly guilty even though none of it was my fault but he definitely had the look of a man who had been trying to put a hat on a hen, as did I, and as did the very long queue of people who were waiting outside the shop and giving me the evil eye as I left.

How about you? Have you been attempting the impossible recently? Tell me all about it.

HISTORICAL SLANG: BADGER-LEGGED

BADGER-LEGGED: To have one leg shorter than the other. Colloquial from about 1700. Coming from the erroneous belief that a badger has legs of unequal length. So here is a picture of a badger showing a bit of leg.

Badger, Animal, Forest, Mammal

In other news the washing machine is banjaxed. You know you are doomed when the repair man says he’s never heard a machine make that kind of noise before. It was like a deranged metallic cricket. The replacing of a circuit board was mentioned but it’s 15 years old. Then he broke open the door and I got my laundry out. I hope they don’t shut down London before next Thursday, when the new one is due, because if they do I’ll be washing my pants in the sink for the next 3 months.

An attempt at normality was foiled by the absence of croissants in the Co-Op. I knew I was doomed when I saw a substantial woman coming out of the shop cramming a croissant in her mouth. Incidentally, I know the feeling both the substantial part and the cramming part, although I usually wait to get home before eating them. All gone and not a can of sardines to be seen.

On the badger front I have started following a twitter account called Mr Lumpy and Friends. It consists of films of badgers eating things and also an excellent one of a baby badger having its ears scratched. Very soothing. I highly recommend it, especially for those moments when you return home and tell your partner you haven’t got the croissants.

http://www.twitter.com/LumpyandFriends

JIGSAW PUZZLES AND WRITING

For those of you who might be doing some jigsaws. A re-post of one I did earlier. I used to do jigsaw puzzles with my mother when I was a child and recently due to a need to sort through some family papers I discovered them again. My mother had some very specific criteria for the puzzles she would do. They should be of works of art and they should have interesting shaped pieces. Not for her the kitsch of the country cottage or any lurid flowers or cute puppies. And she had absolutely no interest in swathes of sky. Waddington Fine Art Puzzles fitted this criteria perfectly. And so over the years she bought a lot of them, some of which I kept. This one below is by Johannes Vermeer and is called A Young Woman seated at a Virginal (1670-72) and it’s in room 16 of The National Gallery in London.

jigsaw2

The main thing I remember about doing them was the companionable silence broken periodically by a murmur of satisfaction as an elusive piece was slotted into  place.

Recently, I’ve been feeling anxious and my concentration has not been good and finding the puzzles gave me a craving to do them again, so I have been interspersing my writing with a bit of jigsaw-ing. I’ve been finding it soothing and according to Wentworth Wooden Puzzles there’s a reason for this.

“An activity that can help us experience some of the many benefits of mindfulness is focusing on completing jigsaw puzzles. In a similar fashion to popular adult colouring books, jigsaw puzzles allow the brain to relax while keeping the hands busy. They provide a calming distraction from hours spent staring at screens, whether that’s a computer, TV or even a phone. An easy way to channel the imagination, a jigsaw puzzle gives you a creative outlet whilst keeping your mind focused. This activity allows us to achieve a state of creative meditation as well as leveraging the left (logical) and right (creative) sides of the brain.

Some studies, such as the MacArthur Study, have even concluded that people who solve jigsaw puzzles in addition to other activities that provide a mental workout, can actually lead to longer life expectancy, better quality of life and reduced chances of developing certain types of mental illnesses (e.g. memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease) by up to a third.

Because of their calming qualities, completing a hard or challenging jigsaw puzzle can have serious effects on your mood. We all know the satisfaction of finally finding where that last piece goes, but this actually encourages the production of dopamine, the chemical in your brain which helps keep us happy and healthy. These mood enhancing effects help to lower our heart rate and blood pressure, allowing us to release stress and tension. These benefits make jigsaws extra beneficial for those who suffer from stress or anxiety.

Completing a jigsaw puzzle can even put our brains into the same meditative state that we experience while dreaming!  So why not take some time out away from work and your phone to complete a jigsaw and see how it can help focus your brain and relax.”

My novels have always come in fits and starts. Rarely have I seen how they fit together until very close to the end. I do not plot them all out. I do not know what will happen. This creates anxiety which I recognize as  part of my creative process but sometimes it can feel like a curse. A jigsaw however can be physically completed; I can create a whole picture.

I’m approaching the end of this one now and what I’m left with are the dull brown pieces. There’s an expression bird watchers use to describe the multitude of birds which are barely distinguishable from each other: LBJs or little brown jobs. Doing this puzzle, I completed the blue of the dress first and then the orange of the string instrument on the left. The colours stand out and are easy to separate. The LBJs may not be flashy and colourful but without them the picture is not complete. They hold the fancier bits together. As I’ve got older I have grown to appreciate more the non-flashy bits of writing, the craft that finishes a paragraph well or sets the scene vividly but with economy. These bits can be hard to write but they make the whole story run smoothly. Anyone can write a fight scene or a funeral.

Towards the end, progress stalls because putting all those brown bits together is more difficult. And that definitely corresponds to my writing experience. The first 30,000 words can feel easy, fun and filled with hope. And they take probably half the time of the last 30,000. Why do I always forget that?

jigsaw4

Doing a jigsaw puzzle of a famous painting has another advantage. It puts you up close and personal with it in an intriguing way. You have literally pieced it together, so you know it intimately. I remember the shock and delight of seeing Winter Scene by A.B. Avercamp for the first time. It was much smaller than I expected but there was the turquoise jewel like roof of the main house, there were the birds sitting on the branches I had struggled to put together and there was the red shirt of the boy on the left. I was stunned. I was taken back to being a child, sprawled out on the floor next to my mother, filling in the pieces.

So, if anyone’s got a nice Waddington Fine Art Jigsaw Puzzle of between 500-1000 pieces – no sky, no pets, no cute cottages, no rushing trains – you might just have yourself a buyer. And if you’re interested in the very beautiful wooden puzzles produced by Wentworth Wooden Puzzles take a look at the link below. I’m very tempted by The Art of Painting and who is it by? Oh, that man Vermeer of course!

And if anyone ever sneers and asks you what the point of doing a jigsaw puzzle is, tell them you’re leveraging the left and right hand side of your brain. That should stun them into silence long enough for you to fill in at least a couple of  LBJs.

https://www.wentworthpuzzles.com/

HISTORICAL SLANG: HOG IN A SQUALL

 

white and gray bird on the bag of brown and black pig swimming on the beach during daytime

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Hog in a squall: to be beside oneself, out of one’s senses (-1887, nautical colloquial). Obviously the above pig is not in a squall but this morning I was. I had adapted to the joys of the cherry picker, beep, beeping past the window (it’s like a bad case of tinnitus) and the loud arguments of the two men using it and the apocalyptic drilling next door and the social distancing and all the rest of it and even the fact that the washing machine had picked the perfect moment to breakdown. But this morning there was a power cut. Yes, that’s right no electricity so the shops could not open and if it wasn’t bad enough round here with people panic buying, the power cut doubled that. And then the guys next door said that they would have to cut the water off at some point and I thought, Oh, fine no electricity, no water, no washing machine. How lovely is that? So yes, Hog in a squall, that was me. And then the power came back on and I felt a whole lot better. I’m trying to write my fiction but unfortunately it’s a plague scene. Can I just say in my defense, it was a plague scene before COVID-19 hit, a historical plague scene. Oxford 1644 in the middle of the English Civil War. They had typhus, something called campus morbidus and plague. But it feels immoral to be writing it and anyway who is going to want to read about plague once this is over? Time to think again.

HISTORICAL SLANG: HODDY-DODDY

A squat person. Generally in the 17-18th century in the form of a rude rhyme:  Hoddy-Doddy, All arse and no body. Apparently it was applied to the Rump Parliament in 1648 and no doubt it will probably apply to me when this is all over given the amount of 85% chocolate I seem to be consuming.

And in other news I have never felt less socially isolated. Yesterday a cherry picker arrived outside the block I live in to look at the gutters. Did it look at the gutters? No it did not. Did it beep a great deal while trying to, a foot from the window I was working in? Yes it did. At the same time they are doing up the flat next door and they are making the kind of noises that make you feel they will come bursting through the walls with a big drill in their hands. And then someone came and cleaned the carpets in the communal part of the block. Social isolation? Oh and then the washing machine broke. It was obviously waiting for the perfect moment and it chose yesterday. Still no cackling farts in the Co-Op [see previous post].

HISTORICAL SLANG: CACKLING FART

Today’s word is: CACKLING FART – An egg, late 17th-18th century. A cackler is a fowl so it should really be CACKLER’S FART but it isn’t. Incidentally a CACKLER was also a blabber (18th-20th century). A CACKLING-COVE was an actor and a CACKLE-MERCHANT was a dramatic author (1860). A CACKLE-CHUCKER was a prompter in the theatre. Hence CUT THE CACKLE! to shut up. Which I am not going to do because although I am not a dramatic author, I am a historical fiction writer in London which is in shut down because of COVID-19, so expect more cackling for your entertainment tomorrow. After all what is a gal to do when she has time on her hands but read her Dictionary of Historical Slang from cover to cover and visit her local Co-Op and discover that there is not a cackling fart to be had for love nor money.

SO YOU’RE EDITING aka TAMING THE TIGER.

I’m going to concentrate on self-criticism because in my experience the most tricky part of editing is managing your mind. In this context it’s good to remember that we have two sides of the brain. Right hand side: emotional, imaginative, creative and intuitive. The left hand side: logical, analyzing, language processor, critic. If the right hand side has been largely in charge during the creative side of writing, during the editing process, the left hand side comes to the fore.

And you want it to.

You want it to see structural problems, examine patterns, assess the believability of characters, and you want it to pick up on spelling and grammar mistakes etc.

So you want to utilize it but you do not want it to destroy you.

If the left hand side of the brain is a tiger, we want it to be The Tiger Who Came to Tea, (at the beginning of the story) an urbane polite beast that will point out difficulties and illogicalities in what we’ve written and present solutions. We do not want it to be Sheer Khan in the Jungle Book. We do not want it to  look like this one below, as if it is going to pounce on us and eat us alive. We want the the tiger on our side; we do not want to be its tasty snack. Excuse me, I hear you cry, How the hell do you tame a tiger?

angry animal big carnivore

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The only answer to that is with practice.

A sign that the left hand side of the brain is snacking on us is if you have some of the following thoughts going through your head when you consider your book:

  • it’s rubbish
  • I’ve no idea where to begin
  • what was I thinking of
  • I’m ashamed of it
  • I’m stupid
  • no one will be interested in this stupid story
  • I’ve wasted so  much time on this rubbish
  • am I completely nuts
  • it will never be published
  • I will die in poverty

These kinds of thoughts which can have a certain taunting playground quality are I would guess very common to all writers at some time or other. Writing them down helps because it brings perspective and stops them rolling around unaddressed in your brain. So write them down, tear them up and crack on.

However, there are likely to be times when the tiger gets you and you stop and simply don’t know how to proceed. It might be helpful at this point to remind yourself that writing a novel is an incredibly difficult thing to do.  Most writers have been at this point. There’s a reason why people give up. It’s now a question of whether you are going to be one of them.

Related image

V &A’s Tipu’s Tiger

If the tiger has its jaws at your throat there are a few things you can do:

  • go for a walk. I know, I know but there’s all kinds of evidence out there that suggests this is a very good idea. For example a 2014 Stamford study suggested that walking increased a person’s creative output by an average of 60%. Twenty minutes of walking increases cerebral blood flow. etc, etc. Look at it this way, it’s free and it’s unlikely to do you any harm so why not give it a go.
  • talk to someone you trust. This is a bit like writing down the criticisms. Getting things out in the air helps reduce their power over you.
  • get someone you trust to read it. A proviso to this is that you are clear what you want and clear about time frame. For example I might say: ‘Would you mind reading through it for me. I’m not quite sure if it’s holding together and I know it’s not quite there yet. Could you tell me if my plot seems OK and if there any points where you get bored or feel it’s losing it’s way. Also if there are any things in it which are irritating/cliched/ unbelievable/repetitive… Be clear on the time frame because if you’re hoping someone will read it in a fortnight and they end up reading it in a month you might be pissed off.

Finally, a few random thoughts. At some point or other you will be confronted with the question of why you’re doing it. Why write? Why put yourself through it? Only you can answer that for yourself. It seems to me that one of the reasons is that we are story telling beings – homo fabula and stories are one way we make sense of the world.

I love this quote from Ben Okri:

“Nations and people are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves lies they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths they will free their histories for future flowerings.”

Good luck with the tiger. Mine is currently looking a bit like this because it views this post as relatively acceptable. Not tamed just resting. Now I’m going to take my own advice and go for a walk.

tiger lying on ground

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