Moving your story forward, thoughts on editing-as-you-go

handwriting_LargeThe danger of editing as you go

If you keep going back to see what your characters did earlier in the piece you might succeed in ‘improving’ their behaviour, sharpening their dialogue, brightening a scene or shading it down … but you will not have moved the narrative forward one iota. Trust the story; you can always go back later and shoo the devils out of the details.

A lesson from the Surrealists

In 1936, Hugh Sykes-Davies, wrote In the stump of the old tree, and I’ve been reading the poem, loving it and holding it up to the light for more than forty years – but just today I see how it reflects on writing process, the going forward and the potential expense of looking backward.

Sykes-Davies is coming back into fashion now, and I am so glad of it.  Apart from his outspoken commitment to Communism, his networking abilities – friends included some avant garde giants of the time, for instance  David Gascoyne, Ludwig Wittgenstein and T. S. Eliot – Sykes-Davies also wrote an enduring textbook, ‘Grammar Without Tears’, an original copy of which I am saving to buy off Amazon.

I’m envious that Sykes-Davies, a by-the-book and wrote-the-book scholar of structural grammar, jumped the rails to become a Surrealist.  His poems helped deconstruct the entire grammarly pudding, poke fun at the rules and clearly open some of the gates to post-modernism and post-structuralism.  It’s the sort of bravery I adore.

hsd5

Hugh Sykes-Davies, English surrealist poet, Cambridge scholar, grammarian and outspoken Communist. At St John’s College, 1940’s – where he taught for nearly half a century.

On top of all this, Sykes-Davies was a swordsman of some repute. While he may have looked meek as milk, “He had many wives, four of them his own,” wrote George Watson in his essay, ‘Remembering Prufrock’.

I digress. As ever.
Here is the text of In the stump of the old tree – which I now see as a paean to the writer’s habit of editing as you go … sometimes at the peril of your story’s forward momentum:

In the stump of the old tree

In the stump of the old tree, where the heart has rotted out, there is a hole the length of a man’s arm, and a dank pool at the bottom of it where the rain gathers, and the old leaves turn into lacy skeletons. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees, where the hearts have rotted out, there are holes the length of a man’s arm, and dank pools at the bottom where the rain gathers and old leaves turn to lace, and the beak of a dead bird gapes like a trap. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees with rotten hearts, where the rain gathers and the laced leaves and the dead bird like a trap, there are holes the length of a man’s arm, and in every crevice of the rotten wood grow weasel’s eyes like molluscs, their lids open and shut with the tide. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees where the rain gathers and the trapped leaves and the beak and the laced weasel’s eyes, there are holes the length of a man’s arm, and at the bottom a sodden bible written in the language of rooks. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees where the hearts have rotted out there are holes the length of a man’s arm where the weasels are trapped and the letters of the rook language are laced on the sodden leaves, and at the bottom there is a man’s arm. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees where the hearts have rotted out there are deep holes and dank pools where the rain gathers, and if you ever put your hand down to see, you can wipe it in the sharp grass till it bleeds, but you’ll never want to eat with it again.
Poetry and Prose, 7 (Nov. 1936), 129.

* Sewannee Review, http://www.sewanee.edu/sreview/home.html, 2001
reprinted in Jacket magazine. (http://jacketmagazine.com/20/hsd-watson.html), 2002

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Exhuming C. P. Snow : ‘Strangers and Brothers’, the series

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The Affair, sixth in the seven-novel series by C. P. Snow, spanning the period from the end of WW2 to the early ’60s.

Heading for the gate on C. P. Snow’s 1959 novel, The Affair.  It has taken me nearly two months to finish this one, but not for want of enthusiasm – in the previous four months I had the space to read the first five in this ‘Strangers and Brothers’ series.   Only tumultuous circumstances have kept me from the same spanking pace with The Affair. Never mind, you are always rewarded by slowing down with Snow.

For a writer who could create texture, density, intensity and share insights as richly as Snow, he virtually ignores metaphor.  Despite this absence of poetic license and of linguistic musicality, he still can reveal the subtleties of human behaviour, the textures of a built environment –  the weather, and beautifully, of plot.
The wealth of his vocabulary, used with so much ease and an obvious pleasure in words, seems anachronistic.  It feels to me that writers now, even if they have Snow’s grasp of language, wouldn’t dare use his words for fear of alienating readers who haven’t time for more than the gist of things.

Mea culpa.  As a writer and reader who adores Cormac McCarthy (fewer words, ever fewer; few lines, ever fewer; but stitched together into powerful elegies), still I am thrilled and sentimental about the wealth of Snow’s language.  I can’t think of a novelist writing now in English who, in just three pages, uses pudeur, ‘pertinacious’, ‘ectomorphic’ and ‘tenebrous’.
TENEBROUS
“No, the thought of Howard, … of Laura, … of seeing Brown, they were just tenebrous, as though they had added to my rage, but were looked at through smoked glass… I was just enraged because I hadn’t got my own way.”* 
Sixty years down the line, Snow offers up powerful, still-significant pictures of a cultural institution – Cambridge University – that helped shape the Western hegemony we still struggle with today.  With a careful, but never cold eye he dissects the college’s dependence on its past,  its assumption that self-referencing is sufficient when considering matters of conscience and justice. 
CORRIDORS OF POWER
Looking backwards at Snow’s opus, Strangers and Brothers, and cynical as I am now of Golden Eras, I could easily feel alienated from his chosen setting.   It is his gift for the eternal sameness of human yearning, callousness and self-preservation, that keeps me engaged with the university’s inward-looking world.  Through his affectionate sketches, subtle ridicule and careful analysis of what such an institution signifies – and what the global ‘Ivy League’ still means for and in society – Snow created a portrait of the corridors of power that is just as reprehensible now as then.

Above that, his affection and kindliness toward human frailty keeps me convinced of and attached to his characters.  He is careful and true to people’s motivations: shallow, grandiose, genteel, plastic, loyal, disingenuous, arrogant … And his careful and consistent acknowledgment of love.  Certain recurring characters – Winslow, Martin (the narrator’s brother),

Remarkably, and regardless of his critical insights, Snow – Lord Snow, as he became – seems to have alienated no-one within his establishment.  He moved smoothly forward, first as a physicist at Cambridge, then in military intelligence, then as a career political apparatchik of substantial influence (during the war he was named on the Nazi’s ‘Most Wanted’ list of political prisoners), and finally as one of the well-noted, best-selling fiction writers of his time: 1947 – mid-1960’s.

Snow’s ability to straddle his world, a leg over several horses, seems to have kept him in good odour wherever he went.  As I reach for my 1961 edition of Corridors of Power, last in this remarkable series, I am reasonably certain that Snow’s narrator ‘Lewis’, is not the author’s only mirror. I believe the recurring character Arthur Brown is Snow’s – self-satisfied and self-applauding! – portrait of himself.

* How delicious the reference to Corinthians 13:13,  so foundational to the Christocentric origins of Cambridge University, in which most of this series is set?

 


What’s not to Like? Less beige, Zuckerberg

Like Reply

Last week I eavesdropped on two 30-somethings talking about their favourite skiing destinations. When they finally agreed on a snow field in Japan, the guy said, “Oh yes! Big Like! ”

Thank you Facebook, for doing away with hyperbole around the things we love, for flat-lining our great passions and worst fears into one beige syllable.

We need this conflation, don’t we, Mr Z?  The sort of pale pleasantness that Zuckers has decided will arbitrarily help us scale down nasty aggression and unbridled positivity.

Well, in line with a current FB meme currently, I am thinking of ‘doing something different’, of laying down ‘new neuronal pathways’, by going to live in Spain or Holland. I’ve dreamed of hanging out in both places while finishing my novel, and now there’s an even stronger incentive to do it: these are the two countries where FB is trialing alternatives to ‘Like’.

I forget the more nuanced expressions that FB mavens are considering, and I don’t know exactly what they’re testing for.

Perhaps they want to know how alternatives to Like are understood in other languages?  Will shades of emotion cause confusion? Yes.  But confusion of this sort helps make life experience so piercing, so puzzling, so enticing – and so unique to the individual.

I am afraid of hearing more and more people say “Oh, big LIKE!”
I want to hurry to places where you can pick through a cornucopia of synonyms for warm feeling … weakness for example, or soft spot, partiality, bent, leaning, proclivity, inclination, disposition; enjoy, appreciation of, taste for, delight in, relish, passion, zeal, appetite, zest for, enthusiasm for, keenness around, predilection toward, penchant, and in the most beige moments, perhaps simple fondness?

What is wrong with ‘fond’? Such a lovely last-century word? So Scott-Fitzgerald, or even earlier, so Austen, so Elliot. Think Zuckers ever read Austen or Elliot? Possibly. But they clearly didn’t work for him. Because we have ended up at this anodine ‘LIke’.

I can see this young woman and man, clearly attracted, heading off for the incredible, six-meter powders on the Japanese slopes, pumping their funny skiing things and flexing their fine, powerful young bodies along the pistes and chutes and so on (I don’t ski).
They feel the blood powering through their cells, wind chewing their earlobes, the one-off sensations of being young, strong and happy … and, through the fizz of adrenaline and roaring pheromones, they’re yelling to each other:  “Oh, like, like, like, like.”

The universe provides … with practice

Spring 2015 BestOne of the most misunderstood syllogisms of our time has to be: ‘the universe provides’.   Those who accept it as a special exchange with the Great Provider take up a more challenging deal where we are trying for a constant  relationship with the cosmos.  Those who accept the journey also eschew magical thinking, or a knowing wink at the dole, or the myth of natural talent.
In exchange, the universe provides enough glimpses of our goals met and scored to keep us hurrying along, trying and re-trying, for another glimpse of mastery.

Here’s the rub: if you want that engagement and you choose what Julia Cameron calls ‘the artist’s way’, can you do it without expectation?  This doubles your dharma and makes the journey even more provocative: you may have to go for extended periods with the existential mud dragging on your heels, and still stick to your practice.

If practice starts to make you feel low – and it can do that because it is so slow, demanding, and only occasionally yields a noticeable reward – you can reflect on this small sweetener: persistence deepens understanding and all along the way bright, heartening insights can occur. (You can also try this, by the way: shake your head briskly, give your scalp a good, rough scratch (scrambling your brains, I call it), stre-e-e-e-tch your whole self – now smile and return to your practice and see if your atomic being is jingling again.)

Of course, if persistence feels too boring, you can at any time throw the whole process away and do something else … but then you may deprive yourself of the chance to see what would have happened if you’d only kept on keeping on.

To ‘keep on keeping on’ means holding faith with Jung’s insight: “Change takes place at glacial speed” … but it rest assured, it does take place – change is still the only constant.

As an example, a woman I met a couple of years ago was suddenly widowed and then discovered her late partner had mismanaged their joint funds, leaving her virtually penniless.

She’d been born with artistic talent, but “reality always got in the way of the dream”.  She had followed the pragmatic journey of a working wife and mother, always imagining – as we do – that one day she’d have the space and financial security to develop her gift.  Now she was over fifty, standing alone on very shaky ground.

The next couple of years were challenging, sometimes frightening, but she gradually righted her ship.  On the voyage, she discovered she now had one precious, wholly-owned asset: her time.

Never in her adult life had she had so much of time to spare – nor been so aware of how finite it is – it seems for reasons both biological and cultural, that the gods do not permit us this insight until we reach a certain age.

At first the woman struggled to manage this abundance of extra time.  All to often, loneliness came to fill the space, and with it a loss of faith in the singular miracle of life.  Then one Saturday afternoon a friend invited her to a life-drawing class in the city.  She felt the charcoal’s grittiness on paper, her eyes began talking to her hand about lines, light, shade … two hours later she ‘came to’, as if she had woken from an hypnotic trance.  Twelve drawings she had executed, tentative and rough, and the time had whipped through her, charged with extraordinary energy.  That night, looking at her work, she made a pact between Self and Universe – she vowed that for one solid year she would do a drawing every day.

I met this woman at the end of her 365-day drawing practice, and at the start of her Master’s Degree in Visual Art.  After so much consistent focus on her internal and external universe, she had produced an extraordinary body of work.  Not only because the final pieces were so strong and persuasive – but because you could track, from the first tentative sketches, the gathering of her energy.  She was a storm of productivity, a living evocation of “energy out, energy in”.

“I will never be comfortable again,” she told me, “From now until I die, I will have to acknowledge the stone in my shoe and let it drive me forward. And be at peace with that.”

As we practice breathing, we can understand the foundation value of practice itself: with each new breath, nothing special happens … except the miraculous provision of the next inhale.  With each new breath, another chance to express your gift, and gradually we build, expression upon expression, until we understand:

the only provision the universe makes for us is the next breath, and we have no other choice but to keep taking it.

Post-breakfast/pre-shower thoughts: Harold Bloom, Christina Stead, Jonathan Franzen … and where to start with the Western Canon

SteadManChildrenBrowsing the appendices of Harold Bloom’s Western Canon – as we do in our after-breakfast/pre-shower moments – I’ve discovered that he has included Christina Stead’s ‘The Man Who Loved Children’. It’s true he’s put it in Appendix D: The Chaotic Age: A Canonical Prophecy, but still I feel vindicated and proud to see Harold rates Stead’s great faction up there, among the Really Important literary efforts.

Jonathan Franzen’s in his generous New York Times review wrote: 

“A 1980 study of the 100 most-cited literary writers of the 20th century, based on scholarly citations fro m the late 1970s, found Margaret Atwood, Gertrude Stein and Anaïs Nin on the list, but not Christina Stead. This would be less puzzling if Stead and her best novel didn’t positively cry out for academic criticism of every stripe. Especially confounding is that “The Man Who Loved Children” has failed to become a core text in every women’s studies program in the country.”

If you take it religiously, Bloom’s list can fill you with despair.  You may foster dreams of starting at the beginning – Gilgamesh, first title, Appendix A , and dedicating what’s left of your life to every successive title … ending with Anthony Hecht’s Collected Earlier Poems: … perhaps your casual glance will settle from time to time on the sea’s travelling muscles …” *

Then you remember life really is too short, and that you don’t really want to read a translation of the Quran. You haven’t even read the regular bibles in your own tradition, why would you start fossicking around in someone else’s?  And who is Henry Roth – brother of the more infamous Philip?

Even with such pragmatic thinking, it can be disappointing to see that despite a lifetime of reading, you and Harold seem to have blended your literary saliva on so few occasions. And then to remember his list is only what is left of his deliberations – he would have bah-humbugged several thousand others.

And then, because it is Harold Bloom, you can easily become intimidated and start downgrading everything in your personal canon. But then, on consideration that is a very self-abnegating place to sit. Why should you, when Harold has not included A. A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six”, or Dr Seuss?

After all, Harold is only the product of a certain journey papered with certain books. And all journeys are valid, even if they began with Richard Scarry, stalled on Zane Gray and inched forward again with a chance dip in The Magus. But that’s Harold’s point, I guess; all it takes is seredipitous segue into The Magus, to place you and Harold on the same page, so to speak, as it were.

And that is what makes a canon A Canon: a map to plot a cultural journey, so that when travellers meet at various points on that map – say at The Magus or The Mill on the Floss – they tip their hats to one another in recognition. Because a Canon is code for everything we think and Bloom’s real wisdom, is not in showing us how prodigious we are in our reading … but how much time we have spent absorbing the literary signifiers for everything our culture thinks and believes.

I’m going to print out Harold’s list and pick out some titles that wink at me. But I’ll remember that Harold never takes and does not deserve the moral high ground. He has simply asked: “What shall the individual read who wants to track the journey of cultural kin to this point in history?” And he answers the question with due deference to all the other choices that exist – as you see when you read his introduction.
. . . . .
In 2011, the Meigunyah Modern Press, University of Melbourne, 2011 published the most recent edition of The Man Who Loved Children – and were able to use Franzen’s New York Times Review as the foreword (or perhaps it is the other way around – I can’t quite work it out.) But what I’m saying is it’s is worth reading Franzen’s review because it is so skilled, generous, and because of his ability to make scholarship so unthreatening. But above all because he loves TMWLC – and in my book, anyone who loves TMWLC is clearly on the same red dotted line of the cultural map as I am: one of those whimsical, wide-spaced lines that mark the roads traveled by chance.

In Franzen’s review/foreword he does not liken the novel to any other, or give us any cultural come-ons, instead he brings it all into the present by likening the morality and tone of Stead’s story with TV right now when he finds a glittering and even shocking connect between TMWLC and Everybody Loves Raymond: that violent depiction of shameless misogyny and crucible of men’s fears and weaknesses. And he manages to make the connect with a subtlety that I as a writing admirer can only stare and dribble at. How I love the flexible mind that can draw the bow and release the arrow so artfully.

But it doesn’t matter which edition of The Man Who Loved Children you can find, when you engage with Stead’s opening lines, they will always be the same: “All the June Saturday afternoon, Sam Pollit’s children were on the lookout for him …”

1. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/books/review/Franzen-t.html?_r=0
2. Excerpt: “Message from the City”, Anthony Hecht, Collected Earlier Poems. Kindle Edition. Knopf, 2012.

Invitation: 153 Birds – The Bimblebox Exhibition – 9 May

Dear Friends, please come with me to the opening of this unique environmental art protest work, in Brisbane on May 9th.  ‘Bimblebox: 153 Birds’ collates the inspirations of 153 writers, visual artists and musicians who support the 153 bird species living in the Bimblebox Nature Reserve, north west Queensland, and now under threat from fracking. I am so proud my work – in writing and spoken word – is represented in this inspired curatorial project by Jill Sampson.a curatorial piece by Jill Sampson

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