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? 

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

Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

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?

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.

So now you’ve got a first draft …

A very common piece of advice for writers is to put their first draft in a drawer and wait. I’ve seen a month suggested as a good length of time. The thinking is that after that time has passed you will see it with fresh eyes and the editing will be easier.

Ha, ha, ha …

Now this is all very well but what the hell are you supposed to do in this month? In my case probably a week…

Here are a few ideas for you if you are facing this challenging period of time:

paperclips

Pointless pointy things and paperclips

  • buy paperclips [What? Well, it’s something to do, isn’t it?]
  • buy coloured clips [ditto]
  • buy coloured pointy things [double ditto]
  • colour coordinate your books [no, don’t actually, people will think you are disturbed]
  • dead head and water your … oh, good lord they’re actually dead so instead …
  • throw out your dead geraniums
  • phone your friends – oh, you haven’t got any
  • think about cleaning the kitchen floor [but under no circumstances actually do it]
  • pick up a passing poetry book and try and convince yourself that you are more poetic than you are currently feeling [being acutely aware that you want to inject a sense of poetry into certain parts of your book]
  • if all this fails to do the trick place a cat in a deck chair on the printed out draft along with spider man [you will require super powers to edit it] a glass eye [it happened to come to hand] a red heart and the oldest book you own, a 1799 history of the tower of London volume 1 price sixpence [No, I have absolutely no idea where it came from but here it is].

spiderman

Bonkers alchemy

  • take all your loose change [if your knees can take the strain] to one of those machines where it swallows it all up and gives you a voucher to spend. Feel the weirdness of not having one 1 pence piece in the flat apart from the one the machine rejected. Enjoy the weightlessness that goes with having no coppers anywhere near you.
  • consider the fact that with all your other 8 books you had that phase when you hated them and thought they were rubbish, hated yourself, thought you were… This is just another of those times so aren’t we maturing and isn’t this fun?
  • consider therapy
  • play this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ARt9HV9T0w8
  • no, no, no if you’re thinking of rollerskating
  • drink
  • do not under any circumstances start following the news because the toxicity of the national debate [UK/Brexit/October/2019. One month to go etc] will bleed into the toxicity of your relationship with your book and you will want to set fire to your hat [if you have one] or your head if you haven’t
  • don’t read quotes like this because Calvin was obviously feeling exactly like you are now

“The shelf life of the modern hardback writer is somewhere between the milk and the yoghurt.”

CALVIN TRILLIN – THE NEW YORK TIMES 14 JUNE 1987

  • iron everything you can find including the cat and the hamster
  • try to ignore the 147 random pains that may have sprung into your body at the moment you typed the words THE END
  • under no circumstances dwell on that weird dream you had about Boris Johnson wrecking your car and denying it, the one where you woke yourself up shouting in a rage OR-DAHHHHH, OR-DAHHHHHH…
  • do not practice mindfulness because you will sink into the existential nothingness that is your life without writing and it won’t be pretty
  • don’t open that drawer which contains packets of old strepsils, a torch, batteries which may or may not be flat, an ancient camera, a belt that you once put round your waist but which now fits the top of your thigh, many odd gloves and your great aunt’s handkerchief holder, currently containing no handkerchiefs, three old conkers and miscellaneous christmas cracker gifts including a tiny green frog which is supposed to hop but … Wheeeeeeeeeee…oh my god that’s brilliant I’m never throwing that out. DO NOT OPEN THE DRAWER because it will make you feel like falling asleep for 100 years.
  • on the other hand that’s the best idea you’ve had so far. If you can, sleep for a week, it’ll save your liver and  it’ll prevent you buying paperclips and then you can get up and start editing. Good luck and don’t forget to use the pointy things but don’t worry if you don’t there’s always that drawer to put them in where they can point pointlessly at the pointless things in there which you have just discovered include two f*****g bags of coppers [coins not policemen] and that tiny green frog.

THE END (although unfortunately as any fule kno, it probably isn’t).

Q&A with Joy Rhoades @JoyRhoades1 author of #WoolgrowersCompanion

The Woolgrower’s Companion is a wonderful book written by Joy Rhoades, set in 1945 on a sheep farm in New South Wales, Australia. At a time when all the local able bodied men have enlisted, two Italian prisoners of war, Luca and Vittorio, are drafted in to help. It traces the fortunes of a young woman, Kate Dowd, as she struggles to keep her family farm going in the course of a dry desperate year.

JRhoades

“The Woolgrower’s Companion is the gripping story of one woman’s fight to save her home and a passionate tribute to Australia’s landscape and its people.”

The book combines beautiful descriptions of the Australian landscape with compelling characters and has a wonderful page-turning quality. It has been shortlisted for two prizes this year, The Society of Authors’ McKitterick Prize and The Historical Writers’ Association Debut Crown. I loved it and was delighted to ask Joy some questions.

Q. I loved the character of Daisy, the Aboriginal girl, and was fascinated by the part of the book that dealt with the Stolen Generations. Could you tell me a little about the research you did and also about the other Aboriginal women  who you acknowledge in the book?

A. It was essential, and very important to me personally, that I approach the Aboriginal characters and cultural aspects of The Woolgrower’s Companion with sensitivity and respect. While it would never occur to me to write a book from the perspective of an Aboriginal character, it would also never occur to me not to include the Aboriginal characters who would have been found in this time and this place: remote New South Wales in 1948. To exclude these characters would be disrespectful and dishonest.

I feel it one of the great blessings of my life to have come to know my Aboriginal cultural guide, activist and poet, Kerry Reed-Gilbert. Kerry, as well as a number of other extraordinary matriarchs in Aboriginal communities in Australia. They guided me on the manuscript. Kerry vetted drafts for me too to ensure I was dealing with cultural aspects appropriately. They have taught me so much and I continue to learn.  It’s a lifelong process and I see it as my duty, as a white Australian, and as a writer.

Q. You teach – can you let people know how they can be taught by you?

A. I love teaching creative writing. To spend time, helping writers and would-be writers hone their skills? Best thing in the world. Mostly the classes are at libraries around London but I’ve also just begun a new account on Instagram, putting in one place writing exercises, posts on writing craft books, and of course, news of my next writing class. Follow at: https://www.instagram.com/start_write/ I plan to go live on Twitter and Facebook as well very soon, and post podcast interviews on writing craft as well.

Q. Was there always going to be a sequel? When can we expect it?

A. As I was writing The Woolgrower’s Companion, I didn’t consciously plan for there to be a sequel. But when I finished the book, there was still so much I wanted to explore with these characters. So almost immediately, I started work on the outline for what would become the sequel. Penguin (publisher of The Woolgrower’s Companion) has bought the rights and it will be out in 2019.

Q. One of the things you do wonderfully well is produce beautiful evocative descriptions of landscape. Does this come easily to you?

A. I’m laughing here because I’m thinking, does any writing ever come easily? Certainly, my desire to get down on paper the strong feeling I have for Australian bush, that’s always there. Readers tend to say two things: what happens next? And I felt like I was there. That makes me happy. I want my reader to be transported, wrapped in this world.

JRhoades2

Joy Rhoades author of The Woolgrower’s Companion

Q. I loved the quotes you use at the top of each chapter from ‘The Woolgrower’s Companion, 1906’ and in fact I only just realized it’s fictional and not an actual manual for sheep farmers from that time! Tell me a little about how you made the decision to do that and why?

A. I’m so glad you thought it was real! It came about because I love Victorian literature: that convoluted sentence structure and the formality of the vocabulary. And I’m also a big fan of The Shipping News, that wonderful novel by Annie Proulx. Annie prefaces each chapter with a quote from the (real) Book of Knots and the knot chosen illuminates what follows. So my chapter epigraphs in The Woolgrower’s Companion are a mishmash of homages to both these loves: Victorian literature and The Shipping News.  I set about writing a faux guide for Australian sheep growers, as if it had been written in 1906. I was able in that guide to talk about breeding and race and weakness of lines and all manner of things to help show the thinking of the time, and so show how much we’ve moved on. I picked 1906 just because it’s the year of the birth of my grandmother, Gladys Chateau. The Woolgrower’s Companion is very loosely based on stories from her life and her family.

Q. You live in London now. How do you cope with the lack of open vistas!

A. London is flat! But that flatness of landscape is something I grew up with in western Queensland. In Roma, (the town where Joy was brought up) a hill, being so rare, gets a name: Orange Hill. Hospital Hill. But in Roma, once you get out of town, and absent a dust storm or a real storm (both rare) you can see for miles in any direction. I miss that very much and am still, even after the years I’ve lived in London, taken aback when I find myself at the top of a rise, and I can see. I love London, though. I miss Australia, absolutely. But the life and diversity and music and books and history of London: it’s intoxicating. I’m living in Charles Dickens’ city. And I’m not yet tired of life.

Thank you very much Joy! I should also add that the book has recipes (scones, cakes, biscuits …) and also an excellent series of Book Club questions.

To buy the book Amazon has an offer on Kindle for just £2.99: https://amzn.to/2MRofwL
And if you’d like to connect with Joy here are her social media links:

“THE BLOSSOMEST BLOSSOM”

Blossom

So Spring arrived finally and wasn’t that a relief! And obviously I went out into the sun and stood under cherry trees and so forth and the phrase ‘the blossomest blossom’ kept going round in my mind and I could not remember where it came from. And then I did remember watching an interview of the writer Dennis Potter by Melvyn Bragg. It took place in March 1994. Potter was dying of cancer of the pancreas – he died three months later – and it’s a remarkable interview by any standards. I remember watching his plays as a child on television. Pennies from Heaven and the Singing Detective in particular; extraordinary televison with incredible performances by Bob Hoskins and Michael Gambon respectively.

So here’s the link to the interview. It’s fifty minutes but well worth watching all the way through. There’s a real affection and respect between the two men and there is of course ‘the blossomest blossom.’ An interview to treasure. A celebration of spring and of life in the face of death.

 

ON MY DESK: EAGLE WING

From the age of six I was brought up in Queen’s College, Oxford with this building at the end of our garden.

library summer storm

The Queen’s college library with a summer storm coming in

The library is an exquisite Queen Anne edifice with an imposing stone eagle on the top. The eagle’s presence is explained by the college’s coat of arms, which is a shield with three red eagles on it. This is the coat of arms of the founder of the college Robert de Eglesfield (1341) and I assume the eagles were a pun on his name.

My bedroom was in the roof of the Provost’s Lodging’s and looked straight out at the eagle. It was the last thing I saw before I fell asleep each night.

the lodgings

Top right was my bedroom window

Not long after we moved into the Lodgings, the eagle was struck by lightning in the middle of a spectacular thunderstorm. I was looking out of the window when it happened. It shattered and crashed down into our garden. It was odd that it was struck because we were surrounded by much higher spires: St Mary’s, the University church was not far away and that is the highest spire in the city centre and then there were the turrets of All Souls college and indeed the Queen’s chapel. But it was the eagle that attracted the lightning.

Perhaps it saw the opportunity to take flight and seized it.

What is it like to live in this city of birds and shadows? It is like being the offspring of a ghost and a hooligan

PHILIP PULLMAN ON OXFORD

It is an event from my childhood that is fixed firmly in my memory because I was upset and frightened by it. The following day I remember looking at all the pieces of it smashed on the paving stones and trying to hide the fact that I was crying.  Some of it disappeared into my mother’s rockery, other bits were swept away.

In time another eagle was carved and hoisted aloft, this time with the precaution of a lightning conductor running down its back. I remember how big the new one seemed, almost as tall as me, and I remember touching it before it was hoisted aloft. I thought no one was going to touch it for a long time once it was up there.

However, I never felt quite the same way about the new one.

On my desk I have part of the stone eagle that I saw being struck by lightning; a hand-sized piece of its wing that my mother kept. It reminds me of her and my father and of that old eagle that shattered.

eagle wing

Eagle wing

Sometimes I imagine the old eagle is out there, surfing the currents above the Oxford spires, sometimes I imagine he might land on my window sill one night to reclaim this from me.

I have it here to remind me to retain a little bit of that magic from my childhood in my writing. After all, what are our imaginations for, if not for taking flight from time to time?

Do you have an object or touchstone that has a particular significance for you? What is it?

 

I’m sick of sitting round here trying to write this book*

It’s a quote from Dancing in the Dark by Bruce Springsteen but not being a great geek when it comes to lyrics I’d never heard the line in the song, despite having blasted it out numerous times over the years. But yesterday I heard it and I thought, Yes, Bruce, that’s why I love you, I know that feeling well.

I’ve been researching. Here are some of the books I’ve been reading …

Oxford books

Lots of them, aren’t there?

Here are my notebooks and here is my favourite slightly bonkers cup.

notebooks and cup

Sometimes, however, it can take a while for research to filter through into the writing. It can sit there like a very solid lump refusing all attempts at merger. It’s a back turned, folded arm thing and however much I suggest the two meet, preferably in my sub-conscious at night. Nothing.  There are of course other things that can be done. Things like buying sparkly notebooks and listening to Bruce Springsteen. This notebook is a particular favourite because you can stroke it and create patterns with the sequins. It’s strangely soothing.

sparkly notebook

I’ve been reading Bruce’s autobiography and there’s a great bit where he talks about writing Dancing in the Dark. It came late to the album, Born in the USA. Jon Landau manager and music producer tells him he needs a song in the album which ‘throws gasoline on the fire’ so he wrote the song that evening about ‘his own alienation, fatigue, and desire to get out from inside the studio, my room, my record, my head and just live.’  It was the song which took him furthest into the pop mainstream. I’ve seen him twice in concert, once in Wembley in the eighties and then a few years ago in Hyde Park. They were both extraordinary. Time for me to dance in the dark, I think. Here he is in that video…

*Dancing in the Dark, Born in the USA, Bruce Springsteen.

Q&A with author Jennifer Alderson

I had a lovely time answering questions set by the author Jennifer Alderson. If you want to know who I chose to sit next to on a long flight (got in  a bit of a panic half way through that one and had to call in Lily Tomlin) and what the question was I wished she’d asked me, read on!

http://jennifersalderson.com/2018/01/16/spotlight-on-historical-fiction-and-mystery-author-victoria-blake/