Little pricks

I had a dream last night a little dweeb called Caleb Bond had published a novel to great acclaim. Bond is a young conservative columnist who looks like he hasn’t started to shave yet. He’s a fanboy of the conservative elements of the government and will occasionally indulge in the sort of breathless, fanboy prose that makes you feel like taking a shower after reading it. The rest of the time he’s a derisive, superficial critic of all things truly liberal. He’s a smug little prick with smug little prick views and just the sort of smug little prick you want to punch in the face. He and I are not close.

So anyway, in my dream, he opens up as the author of a novel that may be close to being a masterpiece and my world comes crumbling down.

For a start, how can someone I’ve dismissed so emphatically be capable of actual art? How does a smug little prick with the self-awareness of a gnat create something so layered with meaning and texture? And as I read it myself I become aware that the little cunt is actually the real deal. And, what the fuck, he’s actually got something published while I, heroic liberal that I am, slave away going in circles.

There’s a lot going on here. I mean, have I been so reductive in the first place that I can’t contemplate that someone might be more than their unimpressive public profile? What does that say about me? I wonder, where does art come from? What is the wellspring of it when clearly – as history shows – not all of its practitioners have been great characters (though generally, unlike Bond, have some talent)? I question everything, but what bites deepest is that he has done the very thing I seem incapable of doing – producing a work of art. That burns, and in the dream, I wonder if maybe I am a fucking snowflake after all.

Thankfully, it’s only a dream, and if that little suppository ever publishes anything worth reading I’ll join a monastery.

Where has this come from though? The Caleb Bond part of it is completely random. He’s a snide character, but so are most of his mates and I don’t waste much time worrying about any of them (though I’m curious how someone so young can hold such extreme conservative views- Keating used to call them ‘young fogies’).

What I really think is that this dream is a product – or reflection – of my own recent writing journey. It’s been bloody frustrating lately. Maybe Caleb Bond – a little prick – is the symbolic little prick to rouse me to greater effort?

I set myself to get to 50,000 words by the time I return to work on Monday. As of now, I’m a little over 45,000. I started off well this week, but then a combination of things sidetracked me – social events, hot weather, the cricket. Really though, what stopped me was that I’m at a creative loss just at the minute.

These episodes generally don’t worry me too much. I go back a little, I have a break, I take a look from different angles, and eventually, something will come to me. That’s been the case these last 15,000 words, but it’s not getting any easier, and even what I’ve done I’m not sure about.

I likened it the other day to driving on a winding mountain road at night with dim headlights. You’re not sure what’s coming up ahead, if you should turn left or right or keep going straight and you proceed tentatively, only to look back and wonder if you missed your turn and if you’re on the right road.

That’s where I’m at. I haven’t crashed yet, but I’m not sure where I am or where I’m heading.


Learning from the movies

Over the weekend I caught a Danish film director discussing how Nicolas Roeg and his film Don’t Look Now, influenced his vision and style. It was a fascinating and thought-provoking conversation. What I knew I could agree with. I’m a fan of both the director and the movie, which is a classic. What I didn’t know – or hadn’t thought of until then – was intriguing, and sent me off in a new direction.

What caught my interest particularly was a conversation about how Roeg edited the movie, and how effective it was in communicating mood and sense. It was discussed how the things left out shape a story – a not unfamiliar notion as Hemingway was big on this from a literary perspective.

I like talks like this because I’m curious and have a passion for the arts (and most things actually), and like to understand. I especially like how discussions like this set off different trains of thought in me. Things like this can reverberate in me for days. I’ll examine it a bit at the time before letting it go, but it’ll keep coming back to and until I have my own, 360 degree perspective of it. I have an objective understanding, but I’ve also got a personal understanding of it.

Occasionally there are more practical applications for such information. As my mind span off on Saturday it naturally occurred to me that I can apply these tricks to my writing. It’s a different medium, there’s no vision I can play with, but I can break things up and dictate the flow easily enough. Till then it was something I’d given only cursory consideration to.

As it happened it was a very timely reminder – but then these things reverberate especially strongly when there’s something to attach to. This time it was a section of prose I was uncertain about how I should proceed. Here was the answer.

It worked, too. I took the lessons of Nicholas Roeg and applied them to this writing and it changed entirely the feel and mood to exactly what I wanted.

Last week I explained how some weekends I’m more productive than others. This was a productive weekend. I managed to put down a couple of thousand words, on top of sketching out in some detail the scenes to come.

All art is a form of communication. How you communicate is just as important as what you communicate: substance and form.

How I write

When I’m writing I try and get around a thousand words a day on the page. I only write on the weekends between doing domestic and social stuff, but I still aim to get a couple of thousand words added over the two days.

That’s the aim, but it doesn’t always work out that way. As I write this I’m about 36,000 words into this novel – about 18 weeks of writing in this context. Except for many of those weekends, I only wrote one day out of two, plus the trend is it goes in fits and starts. I remember for about a period of about three weeks I was becalmed. I might have written 500 words, and probably deleted most of them as being inadequate. But then you strike a patch when it flows like honey. Suddenly it’s all clear, you know what you want to write and the words are there just waiting for you to transpose them.

I’m said to be a pretty quick writer, but last weekend I added about 800 words. That’s because right now I’m less certain of the direction I want to take in this phase of the book, and the words are a lot stickier in me. I did a lot of editing though and that has to be taken into account also.

Before I start writing I’ll probably read the previous two chapters to get into the groove, but also to clean them up. First time I put things on paper I’m not overly fussed about the details. I want to get the major points and the framework on the page. I’ll probably re-work it a little more before the session is through, and I’ll certainly return to it next time.

By the time I finish this first draft most of the manuscript will have been re-worked two or three times already. Often the edits become pretty big – changes are made, bits are taken out, other bits put in, and in general, the writing itself massaged to the point that it expresses what I want both clearly and somewhat lyrically.

I’ve been writing this since around March, I think. Say eight months, thirty-two weekends. Over that period I’m averaging about 1150 words a weekend, which sounds about right.

I’m actually considering taking a pause from this book. I’ve made some recent mental adjustments regarding how it ends. Not major changes, but significant. I’m at the stage now leading up to it – I reckon this’ll top out at about 75,000 words. The last three chapters as I’ve conceived them will be around 10,000 words. That leaves around 30,000 words of content leading into that. Much of it I have mapped out in my head, but I’m uncertain about the best way to get there.

My experience is that taking a break is pretty productive. It becomes less familiar and you view the story more objectively. Distance lends a perspective that allows you to see the whole rather being mired in the detail.

This is what I’ve done with the book I’ve finished. I stuck that in my bottom drawer around February and left it there. I’d think about it every now and then, but gradually it went from front of mind to back. At the same time, I had someone read it who would report back to me occasionally with their impressions. Over time my thinking on the book has changed quite a lot, which is what I hoped for.

I’ll pull that out of the bottom drawer sometime in the next few months, maybe sooner than later. When I return to it it will be with a changed perspective and quite radical notions of how I want to re-write it. If I can nail that I think it will be a much better book, and much closer to my original conception of it.

I’m sure I’ll be doing that with this novel too. Can’t speak for others but reckon it works for me. Come this time next year I hope to have two novels finished and in a state I’m proud of.

Reading in the bath

I’ve just had the pleasure of reading a typically charming and interesting article by Joseph Epstein about the pleasures of reading (
There’s little I could add to this. When it comes to books and reading he speaks for me as well. On every point we are in accord, which chuffs me more than you could imagine.

I’m not about to rehash what he wrote – read it yourself – but rather go off on a tangent he briefly refers to.

I’m sure I’ve previously written about the pleasures of reading in the bath. I’m a great bath-taker. To ease myself into a steaming hot bath at the end of a long day is a pleasure both physical and mental. It’s an escape from the world. There you are languishing in the warm embrace of your bath, your muscles relaxing in the soothing water, your mind unwinding from its tight coil. In that time the world stops spinning. It’s somewhere outside, in the raw, uncivilised elements, but here you are reclining with nothing better to do than gently bathe. Fuck the world, this is my time!

That’s not to say you don’t think. There are occasions I set myself to ponder some deep and meaningful thing while lying in the bath. In the bath I have a space of time free to indulge in such examinations. I can dedicate myself to the puzzle at hand, eased along by torpor of the bath, which seems to assist when delving through the metaphysical layers to the very nub of the issue. The steam, the hot water, the very mellowness of the occasion smooth out the trickier elements and eases you over and past the mental obstacles that stubbornly hold you up when upright and perfectly alert. A good bath makes for a very different state of mind.

There are few occasions when I don’t read in the bath. It’s one of the things I look forward to – hoping into the hot water and leaning back to read some suitable paperback while the heat is still on. I might only read a chapter or two before I get around to the proper business of washing myself, perhaps topping up the hot water while I’m at it.

In my mind it takes a very particular type of book suitable for the bath. In broad terms it is something you can dip into and out of with ease. It has easily digestible, possibly even distinct parts. Often it’s just the sort of book I wouldn’t think to read while lying in bed at the end of the day.

One of the notable books I’ve read in the bath is Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf. I’ve also read the autobiography of Jung, the maxims of Marcus Aurelius, once I even read a book or two by Osho trying to make sense of things. More recently I’ve read the notebooks of Simenon, and currently, the letters of Ian Fleming.

There’s a shelf behind the bath and sitting there already are the books I’ll get to next. They include a book about notable, great movies, and another about how to properly pleasure a woman, co-written by a lesbian.

Speaking of – there’s few things better than sharing a bath with someone you adore. Candles, a glass of wine, slippery naked bodies…But then that’s another story…

Just around the corner

I spent a part of Sunday cataloguing my books, something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I only catalogued the books I have out, going one by one through the shelves and to the sundry books strewn around the place – mostly by and under my bed. I catalogued around 150 books, a tip of the iceberg really – there are about a dozen boxes in the garage unopened. It’s a start though, and it was a pretty satisfying experience as each time I scanned a book I was made to remember when I’d bought or read it, and what I thought of it. The books I have out are all important books so there were a lot of memories.

One of the things I recalled as I went through them was the book-reading phases I went through – there were a bunch of Sartre, a bunch of Camus, a bunch of Kundera, a bunch of Updike, Hemingway and Roth. They were read at different times, different stages of my life, but generally they were read as bunches. Camus and Sartre I read in my early twenties. Hemingway when I was still a teen, and later beyond that. Kundera was in my thirties I think, and Roth later again in general, though I first read Portnoy’s Complaint when I was 16 or 17. I don’t remember when I first read Updike, but I’ve been reading his stories regularly.

Then there are the bunches of books put away in boxes – Salinger, Conrad, Mann, Musil, and so on.

For those moments I felt as I did when I first read these books. Often present was a great sense of adventure and discovery. To happen across a good author and a promising set of books felt as if I was about to explore new worlds. These worlds represented an experience, a perspective, another time and place, a world yet mapped for me. I felt an intrepid reader. I wanted to enter into those worlds. I wanted to open all my senses to the experience. I wanted to learn and grow and understand. There was great pleasure in all of this, but also a sense of life education.

In the midst of reading I would often stop to consider what adventures awaited me down the road. These were words, but there was also real life ahead, which these words gave me a glimpse of. I was sure I had great things ahead of me. I remember a sense of almost uninterrupted anticipation.

I remembered all that and wondered when I’d lost all of that. I could understand, given my travails, how it could so easily be mislaid, or even corrupted, but I had the sense that it was on the wane even before that. To be rational, I’ve had many adventures, and lived both deeply and widely. Many of the things I imagined at came to pass. Does that make a difference?

I want to feel that again. I’m older now. There’s probably fewer years ahead of me than there are behind me, but that’s no reason to give it away. I’ve set myself to re-ignite that sense of anticipation and adventure. I don’t think it should be too hard. I may be of phlegmatic temperament, but I still retain some whimsy and am enduringly curious. I want to feel there’s still a lot ahead of me.

Writing life

I’m back at work after a long weekend and slow to rouse. It feels like this is something regular until I realise it only becomes a thing when I feel it, the rest of the time, and four days out of five, I don’t notice it because I’m at work and straight into it. I can skive, but overall I’m pretty diligent.

The weekend itself was pleasant without being anything out of the ordinary. It was a standard weekend with a combination of the usual activities: I caught up with a friend Saturday night and another dropped by Sunday. I did my shopping, I cooked, I read, watched some footy, and I put in my usual shift writing.

I didn’t get as much writing as I would have liked perhaps, but I’m moving in the desired direction. I think this will be a good book if I can get it close to how I envisage it, and better probably than the book I just finished. I’m pleasantly surprised at how much I have improved as a writer over the last 18 months. That comes down to sheer discipline and repetition, and having to wrestle with the complexities of the novel. I hope the improvement continues, though I expect it will slow at some point. For now I’ll take it, confident now that I have the goods to be an above average writer at least – though I’m aiming for more than that.

I’ve parked the novel I’ve written. I flirted with the idea of taking it to a publisher, but held off. I have people reading it who give it great feedback, but my aspirations are higher than that. I figure if I leave it for six months, until a point when it’s out of my head, before going back to it with fresh eyes and improved skill, then I can probably polish it an extra 20%. I can wait – it’s about the art (he said pretentiously).

In the meantime I have this other novel to work on, and two more in my mind to move onto afterwards, plus a screenplay (and sundry stories). And there’s a grant to apply for.

A friend sent me a link a couple of weeks ago for a new venture for aspiring novelists. There’s ten slots up for grabs, each of which come with $15,000 of prizemoney and a writing mentor. The money would be very handy, but it’s the mentor that excites me.

In my book the hard thing about writing is getting an alternative, critical perspective on the work. I can have friends and acquaintances read my stuff, and though their feedback is positive and useful in its way, it’s neither professional or particularly incisive. I’m confident that with properly professional feedback that I can repair or enhance my work with their guidance. I think I have a good eye, and a good nose for that matter, but it’s impossible when you’re immersed in a piece to see it properly. You know it too well. It’s all trees to you.

I’ll be submitting my application in the next couple of weeks, with my completed novel being the work I submit as part of that. By the time they announce the successful applicants I’ll have just about finished the first draft of the current book and will be good to return to the earlier one. I have to be successful of course, but there’s no point worrying about that. I’ll do my bit, the rest is with the gods.

Goodbye, Phillip Roth

I shouldn’t have been given his age, but I felt profoundly surprised last night hearing about the death of Phillip Roth.

Surprise, not shock. I’m very sorry he’s gone, but he was at the age when such things happen, and he probably had a few extra years over the average. It is to be expected. The surprise comes as he has appeared just as healthy and intellectually vibrant as ever in the interviews I’ve read with him recently. Of course, that means nothing.

As a keen reader I’m more than surprised. He gave up writing a few years ago, but even so his is a body of work very few writers can rival. I came relatively late to Roth, I’m not sure why. I remember reading Portnoy’s Complaint and Goodbye Columbus when I was still a relatively young reader – just out of my teens. I enjoyed them, but I probably didn’t pick up another book of his for over 20 years.

It was that second coming when I really began to immerse myself in his writings. I re-read those books, then started on the others. I liked some more than others, but across the board I enjoyed the writing, the intellect, and often times the scope of vision. He captured things that were real. As a bonus a lot of it was pretty edgy too, with a wicked sense of humour at work. A lot of that stuff became controversial, but I enjoyed it.

His death feels greater because I think – for me – he’s the last of an era. Writing has changed since he started up, and though there is much I can appreciate in more contemporary novels my literary heartland are the novels of this time, the works of Updike, Styron, Salter and Roth – all now gone. Perhaps it is because I grew up with them, they are both my influences and much of my inspiration.

I don’t know if there is a contemporary chronicler like Roth was. Sad to see him gone, but glad of his work.