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? 

WRESTLING WITH A GIANT SQUID aka FINISHING MY BOOK

I’ve been coming to the end of a piece of work. When I say ‘end’ I do not of course mean THE END. I mean my novel has to be prised from my limpet-like grip and handed over to the next stage of its development, being edited. For me my novels never really end. If I pick up one of my published ones, which I do from time to time out of a combination of curiosity and vanity, I usually immediately  find bits I want to change. Often it’s the first sentence! So basically for the last couple of weeks I’ve been in the death throes, as my partner drily calls it. Or, as I would put it, since I believe that melodrama is not useful at this stage, wrestling with a giant squid. When I have ripped one tentacle from around my waist, which is telling me I have never understood the basics of punctuation, I find another smacking me in the kisser and telling me shame and humiliation await.

I wonder if there’s a writer in the world who thinks of their work. It’s great. It’s finished. I’m happy to hand it over to my adoring agent/editor/public. If they do exist I would meet them with about the same enthusiasm that Dr Who would feel at meeting a Dalek. In fact my preference would be to feed such a writer immediately to that giant squid as a tasty apéritif.

Fortunately, I have managed to find lots of  juicy quotations by famous writers fed up to the back teeth with their work and filled with self-loathing. Why is it I wonder that other people’s self-loathing is always so much more entertaining than my own? So here are some to reassure you and make you laugh if you too are at the squid-wrestling phase of your work. I’ll tell you who they are at the end. First a very famous Frenchman on the subject of returning to his writing:

1.We are obliged to revive our suffering with the courage of a doctor who is about to give himself a dangerous injection.’

Well, he is French after all. And here is another famous French author:

2.‘My accursed ****** (name of book) torments and confounds me … I am utterly weary, utterly discouraged. You call me master – what a sorry master I am. There are moments when it all makes me want to die like a dog.’

Now a bored Russian:

3.’Now I am settling down again to dull commonplace **** ********, (name of book) with the sole desire to clear a space quickly and obtain leisure for other occupations.’

And here’s a self-loathing one:

4.My soul has wilted from the consciousness that I am working for money and that money is the centre of my activity. This gnawing feeling… makes my authorship a contemptible pursuit in my eyes; I do not respect what I write.’

Finally here is an extremely gloomy Englishman:

5.‘By comparison with the lyric poet’s or the painter’s, the novelist’s life is a despairing one. A work which takes him so long a time, a time that has to be measured in years rather than months, that has, therefore to be written against so many varying and warring moods, how can it ever attain the satisfactory unity of a poem or a picture? His passion may give him moments of contentment or even happiness, but he is aware all the time of how this love affair will close. This is not a marriage: this is a passion doomed sooner or later to end. It already contains the hatred and dryness of heart that will succeed it.’

Aren’t they a cheerful lot! Here we have a dangerous injection, torments, discouragement, boredom, a wilting soul, doomed passion and my personal favourite – dying like a dog. So, if you’re in difficulties and failing to achieve that elusive ‘satisfactory unity’  for your book, take heart because you are in very good company. My advice?  KBO of course. Surely, no one ever told you it was going to be easy?  If they did, now’s the time to sue.

After all that gloom and doom here’s a more philosophical quote to end on which always cheers me up:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

SAMUEL BECKETT

Are you at the squid-wrestling stage of a project? Any tips on prising those tentacles loose?

1. Proust on returning to you know what; 2. Flaubert on writing (Madame) Bovary; 3. Tolstoy on Anna Karenina; 4. Chekhov; 5. Graham Greene.

WRITING TIPS FROM A TROLLOPE!

Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope

I’m reading the autobiography of Anthony Trollope. I should confess here that I am not a huge fan. Back in the day I ploughed through Can You Forgive Her and half of Phineas Finn but without a great deal of pleasure. However, like most writers,  I do like reading about other writers, so I thought I would give this a whirl. And I’m interested in Trollope because I know that he was both extraordinarily prolific and popular. I have to say it’s an unexpected scream of a book. The scream being more of the  ‘Halloween’ than the ‘ha ha’ variety. It was written seven years before he died and intended to be published posthumously and reads like the book of a man who has the most monstrous chip on his shoulder. Which is a little bit surprising because at that point he was so successful you’d have thought he might have lightened up a bit. It is also in some ways an utterly charmless book maybe because he knew it would be published after his death and therefore couldn’t be bothered to modify the tone of what he wrote.

In the introduction it is described as:

‘This queer bleak text-book of the mechanics and economics of novel writing.’

And that’s a pretty accurate description. However, I decided to read it as if it were a Victorian self-help book for writers, a sort of Writing Down The Bones, not that WDTB by Natalie Goldberg is in any way odd or bleak, quite the reverse, and it’s a book I absolutely love.

I read the last chapter (The Fruits of Diligence) first and in it he lists every book he ever wrote (45) and what he made from each one. The total amount was £70,000 which would be about £3,300,000 in today’s money.  He states he has not listed every book to be a show off but to encourage the young.

I’m not sure it has that effect on me but perhaps I’m not young enough!

Some of the most interesting material relates to his mother, who he obviously adored, although he comments of her she was “unable to avoid the pitfalls of exaggeration.”   I know that feeling. A prolific writer herself, Frances Trollope, wrote like a demon getting up at four in the morning to do so and had taken up writing in her fifties to rescue the family from penury. Between the age of fifty and seventy-six she wrote 114 volumes. Trollope describes how even while she was nursing her husband and two children, who were to die of consumption, she kept writing.

‘The doctor’s vials and the ink bottle held equal places in my mother’s rooms.’

Depending on one’s point of view, this is chilling or admirable. What I find interesting is that he had a rôle model who would allow absolutely nothing to come in the way of her writing.

So what lessons can we glean from him? Has he got any tips? There must be some, mustn’t there? Surely this isn’t just a case of a grumpy old man settling scores? Incidentally, his assessment of Disraeli’s novels, (Disraeli was Prime Minister at the time he wrote the book), is absolutely poisonous.

Trollope had an absolutely ferocious work ethic. For each book he kept a diary and noted down the number of pages he wrote every week. The reason being that “if at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there staring me in the face, and demanding of me increased labour…”

He writes 250 words to a page. The number of pages he sets himself to write a week  is  between 20 (5000 words) and 40 (10000 words) but sometimes rises as high as 112 (28000 words). So this is a man who is spectacularly industrious, never misses a deadline and always delivers to the right length. In other words he is highly professional. He is not interested in the glamour of the hare, he is the tortoise who plods away and knows he will win in the end. He is also completely scornful of the idea of “waiting for inspiration.”

ON WAITING FOR THE MUSE: To me it would not be more absurd if the shoemaker were to wait for inspiration, or the tallow-chandler for the divine moment of melting.

What else does he have to tell us?

ON CRITICS: Now I well know where I may look for a little instruction, where I may expect only greasy adulation, where I shall be cut up into mince-meat for the delight of those who love sharp invective.

Well, my own experience of being reviewed is that I could do with a bit more greasy adulation! Bring it on, in fact. Fortunately I’ve not experienced the mince-meat variety although one reviewer did, completely legitimately, point out that she thought it unlikely that Sam Falconer, my PI, would be willing to risk her life for another person’s chihuahua. The flaw in my plot was thus horribly exposed!

ON THE BITTERNESS OF FAILURE: The career (of a novelist) when success has been achieved, is certainly very pleasant; but the agonies which are endured in the search for success are often terrible. 

Oh dear, well that has a vaguely familiar ring to it. Trollope does also state that in the first ten years of his writing career he didn’t earn enough to buy the pens, inks and paper that he was using. Given that he ended up a multi-millionaire that is quite encouraging, isn’t it?

His best tips come in the form of Latin quotations:

ON WRITING PRACTICE: ‘Nulla dies sine linea’ – Let no day pass without a line being written.

ON PERSISTENCE: ‘Gutta cavat lapidem non vi, sed saepe cadendo’  – A water drop hollows a stone not by force but by falling often.

So, there we have it. Write every day. Keep at it. And you too might turn into a grumpy old multi-millionaire just like Trollope.

Finally what does he have to say on plot and dialogue?

ON PLOTS: I am not sure that the construction of a perfected plot has been at any period within my power.

That’s a bit of a surprise. I’d have thought someone like Trollope would have been big on plot but he’s actually rather dismissive of them and in the process rather dismissive of poor Wilkie Collins!

ON DIALOGUE: No character should utter much above a dozen words at a breath.

Well, I’m sorry Anthony but that would be a bit bloody hard (my 12 words are up) to stick to so I’m definitely not doing that…

By the end of the book I actually felt quite sorry for him. He had a vile childhood in which he was mercilessly bullied at school. His father was hopeless and of him he said, “the touch of his hand seemed to create failure.” Yes, the book lacks charm but it is also quite bracing. A bit like a walk along the Norfolk coast on Boxing Day. You may lose all sensation in your face but you know you’re alive. This isn’t a man to wait for the muse to descend or to offer much sympathy to a stuck writer. His response would probably be to thrust a pen and ink bottle into your hand, place some paper in front of you and lock you in a room. Probably between five and seven in the morning. I can’t help feeling that he would thoroughly have approved of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) because that was how he wrote all the time. This is how he ends:

Now I stretch out my hand, and from the further shore I bid adieu to all who have cared to read any among the many words I have written.

It’s actually made me curious to go back and read his novels. So which one shall I start with? Any advice gratefully received but I’d prefer one without too much hunting.

GOING ON HOLIDAY BY MISTAKE

Taormina, Sicily: Etna early in the morning.

Taormina, Sicily: Etna early in the morning.

I don’t really like holidays. To misquote from the film Withnail and I if I am on holiday I usually feel it is a mistake and I agree wholeheartedly with Henry David Thoreau who said:

“Beware all enterprises that require new clothes.”

Some people book holidays and then look forward to them. When I book a holiday it looms over me like a dark tower filled with bats. But recently I’ve come to the conclusion that instead of dwelling too much on the catastrophes that I am absolutely certain  will occur when I leave home, I should adopt another policy which, for want of a better expression, I will term embracing disruption. And I thought I’d blog a bit here about habit and disruption, as it relates to my writing life.

So, first of all, habit. God knows how many hours it has taken me to develop a writing habit. What I do know is that one of the most difficult writing years of my life was when I took a year off and stupidly told everyone I was going to write a novel. It was awful. Everyone kept asking me how it was going and as far as I could tell it wasn’t going very well at all. I hadn’t done this before and I struggled. But at the end of the year I had a first draft. I thought it was terrible but  at least I had written something and I had established some sort of writing habit. That novel was never published but I did complete and polish it. It was a step in the right direction. I was no longer a person who wanted to write a novel. I was a person who had written one. In terms of my own identity as a writer that made a huge difference to my confidence levels.

The Greek Theatre in Taormina, Sicily.

The Greek Theatre in Taormina, Sicily.

Now I know that if I have a pen in my hand and a blank sheet of paper I will generally start writing in the same way that I will at a certain time each day automatically brush my teeth. I don’t have to think about it. Of course, what I write may be utter gibberish but I don’t really mind. Somerset Maugham said that he would just sit there and write his own name until something came to him. I’ve never tried that one but I’m happy to write myself into something. I don’t suffer from first sentence perfectionism; I’ve written too many awful ones in my time to have any illusions that what comes out first will be useful or kept.  I just jump in and blunder around in my mind until I come across something that takes my fancy and then I follow where it leads.

Taormina, Sicily: Etna at sunset.

Taormina, Sicily: Etna at sunset.

While on holiday I was reading The Writer’s Book of Hope by Ralph Keyes. It’s a great book and so is the one he wrote about writing and fear, The Courage to Write. I was reading it while the plane was coming into land at Gatwick and being buffeted by the end of  Hurricane Gonzalo. The experience was not unlike being a dry pea in an empty tin can, tied to the ear of a horse, competing in the Grand National. So I was feeling little hope and lots of fear when this sentence caught my eye.

“Regular work habits and high tolerance for tedium characterize working writers.” 

Hmm, I thought, that sounds just a tiny bit familiar. Maybe a high tolerance for tedium contributes to my  low tolerance for holidays. Because on holiday everything is different and new. The temperature, the food, the money, the language and the interesting range of biting insects. There is also the fact that one is a tourist. Writers, on the whole, like to observe and that’s much harder to do as a tourist because you are the observed. You’re bound to be because  you are a source of cash to the local tradesmen, restaurants, tourist guides and postcard sellers. This loss of the ability to fade into the background makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s a big disruption to how I generally am in the world.

Agrigento, Sicily.

Agrigento, Sicily.

There was a bar just off the Corso Umberto. White cushions on the steps, neon cocktails and the super cool crowd dressed in hippy chic. Unfortunately we had to pass them on the way back to our hotel. I tried smiling at some of the more hatchet faced ones a few times and then gave up and decided, charitably, that Botox was probably inhibiting their normal facial expressions.  Near the end of our stay, as I was puffing past them, puce-faced and sweaty, I saw a very large, reddy-brown cockroach lever itself out of a drain and begin to climb quickly up towards them. It was a lovely moment. It reminded me of the scene in the film Victor Victoria when the impoverished Victoria Grant, played by Julie Andrews, goes and has an enormous meal in a grand Parisian restaurant secure in the knowledge that she has a cockroach in a matchbox that she can  throw in her salad and use as an excuse not to pay. The cockroach escapes and crawls up the leg of a large woman and the whole restaurant erupts in chaos.

The gardens in Taormina.

The gardens in Taormina.

So, had I gone on holiday by mistake? No, of course not and it would be arrogant to suggest it. Taormina in Sicily is spectacularly beautiful and it has a history of attracting writers from Oscar Wilde to D.H. Lawrence to Tennessee Williams. It’s also supposed to be the place where Truman Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I enjoyed the sun setting over Etna (very beautiful), the temples of Agrigento (spectacular), and the mosaics of Piazza Armerina (you must go). And I really enjoyed a large cockroach heading towards the cool crowd.

I also came back with an idea for a novel that would never have come to me if I hadn’t visited the gardens in Taormina. Showing, I think, that a little bit of disruption is good for the creative juices.

When we got home there was a postcard waiting for us from a friend who’d been on holiday in Crete where the temperatures had been rather higher than she’d expected. She wrote:

“So hot I’ve aged 100 years and taken up knitting.”

Now that’s a holiday I can relate to!