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? 

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.

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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

Photo by Tuesday Temptation on Pexels.com

 

CHARLES BUKOWSKI’S LAUGHING TOES

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The Pleasures of the Damned – a damnable pleasure.

Charles Bukowski is a writer I love.  His subject matter is drink, bad relationships, dead end jobs, gambling and writing. But despite that or maybe because of it he is incredibly funny. If you can imagine a cross between Jeffrey Bernard and Tom Waits that’s Bukowski. Bukowski wrote poetry : The Pleasures of the Damned is a pleasure and also novels. Post Office and Factotum are my favourites. Recently I have been reading Charles Bukowski: On Writing (Canongate) which contains a series of previously unpublished letters to editors, friends and fellow writers.

So what tips are to be gained from him:

  • If all else fails try and get a job from someone who published you once:

“I received your rejection of ‘Whitman : His poetry and Prose’, along with the informal comments of your manuscript readers.

Sounds like a nice thing.

Should you ever need an extra manuscript reader, please let me know. I can’t find a job anywhere, so I might as well try you too.”

To Hallie Burnett October 1945

  • Be cavalier in your  approach to rejected material:

“I’ll be honest with you. You might as well keep those poems as long as you want to because when you send them back I’ll just throw them away.”

To Judson Crews November 4th 1953

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    Charles Bukowski making those toes laugh.

    This on writing technique:

“I like to make the words bite into the paper not so much like Hemingway did but more like scratches in ice and also attended with some small laughter.”

To William Packard March 27 1986

  • Here is a quotation that if you’re a writer cries out to be typed up in capitals and placed somewhere in your eye-line.

“If a man truly desires to write, then he will. Rejection and ridicule will only strengthen him … There is no losing in writing, it will make your toes laugh as you sleep, it will make you stride like a tiger, it will fire the eye and put you face to face with death. You will die a fighter, you will be honoured in hell. The luck of the word. Go with it, send it.”

  • Finally

“Writing is only the result of what we have become day by day over the years. It’s a god damned fingerprint of self and there it is … And when you can’t come up with the next line it doesn’t mean you’re old, it means you’re dead.”

To William Packard March 27 1986

As a writer the idea of my writing being a ‘god damned fingerprint of self’ is slightly worrying  but also has the awful ring of truth to it! Oh well, on to the next line then …

This book and all his other writing comes highly recommended. Have you read Bukowski? What did you think? Whether you have or you haven’t, ‘the luck of the word’ go with you and may your toes be laughing as you sleep.

WRITING TIPS FROM HOMER: THE ODYSSEY – BOOKS 1-8

A penguin with a past

A penguin with a past. Also a bronze relief of Odysseus in the Department of Antiquities, Berlin.

I’ve been re-reading Homer’s Odyssey. The last time I read it I was sixteen and I can’t remember much about it other than the fact I wasn’t that thrilled. But those Penguin Classics have the knack of hanging around waiting until you’re ready for them. There it was in all it’s bath-soaked, wrinkled glory on my shelf and I thought I’d give it another go. What tips can be gleaned from this 3000 year old great grand-daddy of the novel? So far I’ve read the first eight books (chapters):

  • Basic plot – Odysseus is trying to get home after the Trojan War but the god Poseidon hates him so he’s been trapped on the island of Ogygia by Calypso who wants to marry him. In Ithaca his wife Penelope and son Telemachus do not know if he is alive or dead. Penelope is beset with suitors who are eating her and Telemachus out of house and home;
  • Pace – God, it doesn’t half crack along. It’s an absolutely rip-roaring yarn;
  • Emotion – It’s much more emotional than I remember. There’s a lot of crying. Telemachus, Penelope, Odysseus, all absolute sobbers but unlike in Hollyoaks they usually pull up their purple gowns and cover their faces when they do it, even if their tears are rolling down to the ground;
  • Sex – Odysseus is forced to have sex with Calypso every night. This however does not make him happy. Even though she has ‘lovely locks’ he sits on the beach during the day crying for his homeland;
  • Main Theme – Home. What it means to Odysseus and how he overcomes the obstacles to get back there;
  • Love story – Athene, the goddess, absolutely adores Odysseus. We could all do with her in our lives. She goes to Telemachus and tells him to go looking for his father; when she’s worried for Odysseus’ safety she throws a mist round him; when she wants him to look his best she makes him look like a god.  Yes, we could all do with  Athene on our side especially on the morning after the night before;
  • Baddies – the suitors who are eating Penelope and Telemachus out of house and home by slaughtering their cattle and drinking their wine and generally behaving like hooligans while they wait for Penelope to decide which one of them to marry. Poseidon who really does not like Odysseus at all. Also the Cyclops is coming up in the next chapter along with other monsters;
  • Structure – a nice bit of juxtaposing present and past or time-slip in modern parlance which is very fashionable. Homer’s agent would be pleased;
  • The Gods – frankly, they’re terrible drama queens. Shakespeare wrote in King Lear: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport.’ There’s a fair bit of fly squashing. Poseidon, for example, hates Odysseus. Poseidon is Zeus’s brother and Athene’s uncle so that’s all nicely complicated. The Gods have their own soap opera going on to match that of the mere mortals;
  • Food – well, there’s enough feasting to satisfy fans of Jamie, Nigella, Nigel, Mary Berry, The Great British Bake Off and sweary Gordon;
  • The Sea – there’s a lot of it and a lot about it. It’s ‘wine-dark’ (don’t ask) and ‘fish-infested’ and the ships on it are always black;
  • Epithets – these are fun: Athene, of the flashing eyes;  Nausicaa of the white arms, Dawn is usually decked in crimson or rosy-fingered; Odysseus is much enduring and nimble-witted and Menelaus has red hair. Not brown or black or blond, red hair. Definitely red;
  • Setting the Scene – he’s very good at it. There are fantastic descriptions of Calypso’s cave and also the palace of King Alcinous.

Finally my favourite bit so far. Odysseus is in the sea off the coast of Scherie, the land of the Phaeacians. A huge wave has washed him towards the rocks. He clings onto one and then is caught in the back wash, torn from the rock and carried back out to sea:

‘…pieces of skin stripped from his sturdy hands were left sticking to the crags thick as the pebbles that stick to the suckers of a squid when he is torn from his hole…’

There’s also a rather touching description of Phaeacian ships:

‘For the Phaeacians have no steersmen, nor steering oars such as other crafts possess. Our ships know by instinct what their crews are thinking and propose to do. They know every city, every fertile land, and hidden in mist and cloud they make their swift passage over the sea’s immensities with no fear of damage and no thought of wreck.’

Now that is exactly the sort of ship I’d like to travel in. Next week Book IX: The Cyclops! A book which should be titled: What happens if you steal a one-eyed giant’s cheese. Tip – look away now.