Tag Archives: writing

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

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?