Sunday 28 October 2012

Inspiration or aspiration?

When I started posting here again after a long gap, it was because I was coming to the end of writing a novel and I thought this might be a place where I could reflect on the process of beginning something new. And beginning something new is definitely what I feel I should be doing. So where’s that should coming from? What’s the compulsion to write?

Samuel Johnson said that no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money, and so far no one’s made me an offer I can’t refuse. More often than not, writing fiction is a speculative activity, and not one that’s likely to make you rich. The upfront costs are minimal (a room of one’s own being handy rather than essential) but that means anyone can have a go, so there’s a lot of competition out there.  

And if I’m not sure what to write next, why not put my energy into some day job or other until the writing mood takes me – next week, next month, next year? A few reasons come to mind.

Because if I’m going to call myself a writer, I ought to be writing.

This is partly about building some career momentum, but it’s also personal. I know people for whom being Irish is crucially important, or Jewish, or working class, and I’ve never fully understood the importance of those attachments, perhaps because I’m a half this, half that, lower-middle, upwardly-mobile, ex-something or other. But I feel like a writer, and once you’ve found out what you are, you should probably be that thing.

Because if inspiration is the solution, first you have to pose the problem.

For the ancient Greeks it was the breath of the muse. After Freud we’re less likely to think of it descending from the gods than rising from the unconscious. I’ll go with that, though not with Freud’s notion of the id as a seething chaos of anarchic impulses. I once thought that the role of the unconscious in art was to provide the formless raw material that the conscious mind must craft into a coherent shape. Then I actually wrote a novel and discovered that a surprising amount of crafting goes on while you’re asleep or otherwise occupied. I also discovered that some days you have to write rubbish so that you can wake up next morning knowing how to fix it.

Because I’m happier when I’m doing it.

The thing about writing a story is that it takes you into some other place. The particular thing about writing a novel is that it’s a place you can spend months or years constructing around you. No doubt there’s an escapist element to that. But there’s also the appeal of being repeatedly challenged, by the logic of the narrative, to write about things you would otherwise have avoided, or to try ways of writing you thought were beyond you. At some point, in other words, you stop having to push and you start feeling pulled.

Saturday 20 October 2012

Welcome to the neighbourhood

I got a call the other night from my sister, to say ‘If you want to meet your neighbours, turn on channel 4.’ I wondered if we were going to see a drug bust or the arrest of a serial killer. Should we be preparing ourselves for questions from the police? He seemed such a quiet man – always kept himself to himself. In fact it was Grand Designs, the programme that ‘follows some of Britain’s most ambitious self-building projects’, this week starring our local water tower.

In some ways it will be odd to live in the shadow of this Venetian Gothic tower, newly unveiled as a luxury home, eight storeys and a hundred feet tall. Will we feel like feudal tenants? Will the toweristas themselves, living on such a vastly different scale from the rest of us, be conscious of slumming it? Wouldn’t they be more comfortable in a nice Georgian square north of the river?

The water tower was built in 1867 to supply the Lambeth Workhouse, where Charlie Chaplin spent time as a child. Until this radical make-over, grade two listing had preserved it from demolition, though not from weather-damage and dilapidation. The largest surviving workhouse building now houses a cinema museum. To the ghosts of those long-dead inmates, the new flats built around and between the Victorian structures must represent unbelievable luxury, so much further from their reach than the refurbished water tower is from ours. 

Actually the tower is only the most visible aspect of the site’s economic diversity. The new flats have been built during a period when private developments of fifteen properties or more must include affordable housing (a requirement due to be scrapped by this government). So they maintain the social mix of an area that includes the Elephant and Castle, a scruffy, vibrant hub of activity where languages and cultures jostle for space, and from which eight of London’s bridges diverge like spokes from an axle.  
It’s clear from Grand Designs that our new neighbours could have played it safe and put their money and creative energy into any number of easier projects that would have incurred less debt. I’m glad they took the risk of rescuing this historic building and I hope they enjoy their panoramic views.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Seething with resentment, anyone?

I think I just finished a novel, though it’s hard to be sure. There ought to be a moment when you type THE END, stagger away from your desk and crack open a bottle, but there usually isn’t. This one’s called The Book of Air and I thought I was done with it months ago. Then I got some professional feedback, did some rewriting, had a couple of friends read it, rewrote some more, delivered it to my agent (who is brilliant, by the way), responded to her modified rapture with another rethink. And now it’s probably as good as I can make it. Really. At least until an editor gets hold of it (let’s hope) and suggests that maybe parts of it could be cranked up or toned down or the whole thing radically restructured....

So finishing is a nebulous concept. 

And throughout this process there are the flashes of inspiration and the sudden bouts of writer’s remorse that have you firing up your computer when you should be asleep.  
Which is why I like to hear what other people think, so I’m not just stuck in my own head. When it comes to writing a novel, generally you’re on your own. Screenwriters collaborate but partnerships in fiction are rare. Conrad did it with Ford Madox Ford, but who else? You have to pull all those words out of your own brain. But once you’ve got something readable, why not get someone to read it. It’s a lot to ask, and you have to choose your reader carefully, but if you’d put all that time into writing a novel wouldn’t you rather find out what wasn’t working, while you still had a chance to fix it?

Actually, I start earlier than that. I swap work in progress, chapter by chapter, with a novelist friend, whose writing I admire, though it’s different from mine, and whose opinion I value.

She and I may not be typical. In a review of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth in the LRB, Adam Mars-Jones says, “we know that writers, whether seasoned or just starting out, seethingly resent the suggestions for improvements made by professionals, let alone amateurs (“Draw me a what’s-it cube” London Review of Books 13 September 2012).

I wonder if he’s right.

Monday 15 October 2012

Is Will Self having a laugh?

Here he is in the Guardian, talking about his novel, Umbrella, which has been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize:

‘For a writer who increasingly mistrusts the metaphoric – nothing, in the final analysis as much as the first impression, is like anything other than itself – when it comes to the subject of my own books, and my attitude to them, I find myself mired in similitude.’

Everything in this sentence is slightly out of focus – other than the sense of self-importance. For one thing, the end isn’t quite connected to the beginning. Maybe if you clear all the other stuff out of the way, the beginning and the end would just about hang together:

‘For a writer who mistrusts the metaphoric… I find myself mired in similitude.’

Even so, there’s something odd about that construction. Wouldn’t an ‘although’ or a ‘but’ do the job better?

Although I’m inclined to mistrust the metaphoric, I find I can’t avoid using metaphors to talk about my own writing process.

I mistrust metaphors, but when it comes to writing about my own books I seem unable to escape them. So here goes…

Part of the problem is that the opening has a third-person feel to it. It’s not the way people usually talk about themselves. But you have to wade through all the parenthetic stuff before you get to the ‘I’, which is the first thing that definitely tells you this is Self talking about Self and not some other writer talking about Self, or Self talking about some other writer. Even the first ‘my’ doesn’t clinch it, though the second ‘my’ sort of does, so the knowledge that this is a first-person statement seems to creep up on you in a creepy kind of way. A third person ending would actually follow more naturally:  

For a writer who increasingly mistrusts the metaphoric, when it comes to the subject of my own books, Smith is strangely free with metaphors, chucking them about like empty bottles at a Bullingdon Club dinner.  

That would be Self talking about some other writer. And this would be some other writer talking about Self:

For a writer who claims to mistrust the metaphoric, Will Self is strangely attracted to phrases like ‘mired in similitude’.

That muddy image, by the way, is not the metaphor he’s apologising for. He hasn’t started talking about his book yet – the subject on which he finds himself getting bogged down in metaphor. He’s still talking about the process of talking about his book. This is what happens when he really gets into it:

‘So Umbrella, like all my other novels, seems to have come about through the conjoining of one idea or preoccupation with another, until, having reached a critical mass this fissionable material exploded and so produced the blast pattern that is the text itself.’

That’s the metaphor he’s apologising for. No apology necessary, I’d say, though the claim that his writing has the force of a nuclear explosion might come better from somebody else.

Which takes me back to the argument against metaphor that’s slipped in between dashes. Is it really true that ‘nothing… is like anything other than itself’? Isn’t a carrot more like a parsnip than either is like a suitcase? And anyway, since when was metaphor about putting things together that are like each other? When did it involve looking at a carrot and seeing a parsnip? I’m not being pedantic here about the difference between metaphors and similes. I’m talking about the imaginative process that transforms my luve into a red, red rose, or life into a mortal coil to be shuffled off, or ideas into fissionable material.

Here’s Jeet Thayil, whose novel Narcopolis is also shortlisted, giving a less clamorous and more convincing account of the way elements come together to form a whole that is more than the sum of its parts:

'I recalled moments I did not know I had stored away, snatches of old Hindi film music, bits of conversation, a slant of dusty light in the late afternoon, a room in which life occurred at floor level, a face lit by an oil lamp…. I understood that the book had decided its own shape and it would be foolish to resist….'

For the complete set of articles by the six shortlisted authors see: