Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A RISKY BUSINESS (2) Working Hard & Sitting Still

A RISKY BUSINESS (2) Working Hard & Sitting Still

I intend to write a million words in 2011.

I started 2011 on Boxing Day 2010, to (a) warm up, (b) start to flex my writing muscles, (c) get a few words started of “cushion, (d) to inspire the Boot Campers.

For personal reasons I have had a rotten, miserable writing year. I don’t really deserve to call myself a writer. I could wallow, I could give up. I could pretend that I am burned out, when in reality I’ve just got lazy and my writing muscles have lost their tone. In terms of fiction, since Dec 26th I have only written one piece. It’s not my best, but it is WRITING and by the end of January 2011 I will have written something that I can be proud of.

Now this is not to tub-thump or blow a trumpet over my own hard work. The obvious response (always wrong) in that quantity is achieved at the expense of quality. Not so! Not so! And even if it were so, and from a month's work I got just a single story of quality (I mean real quality) that's 12 great stories a year.

But the millions of words I write have taught me a new language. I can move around tenses and Points of View, appear and disappear as a narrator, do tricks I never dreamt of when I began writing, stuff I couldn't do after five years.

At their own rate, on their own scales Boot Campers are doing the same thing. They are first learning to speak so one day they will be able to sing.

Singing will mean insight, language, a fresh expression, depth of character.

But what is "depth"?

Quoting Alvarez on Brendel again:

Brendel thinks Beethoven's last piano sonata, Op. 111, is a "premeditated conclusion, a last word leading into silence forever."

Discussing a performance of a complete cycle of Beethoven sonatas in Munich Alvarez talked of "depth" and then quoted Isiah Berlin.

"Depth is an odd word. It's a metaphor but you can't translate it into other terms. Depth means penetrating into something very basic in oneself, and touching it, and feeling an electric shock."

At the time Alvarez wrote, Brendel was suffering physical frailties that were beginning to restrict his playing. He was getting old, but still learning.

"One does not stop learning," Brendel said. "I've learned how to control certain silences. They depend not just on what you play but on how you look. After the last chord of Op. 111, I don't move. I don't take my hands away from the keyboard, because directly I stir, they applaud. Each time I play the Beethoven cycle the silence gets longer, because I know how to relate to it. I know how to sit still."

On Sitting Still

I once wrote an article (you can read it at The Internet Writers Journal) called Theme Music: Tone is Not an Accident.

NOW, it's not. But when I began writing, long after I was being regularly published, there was tone over here, character over there, and a bit of plot somewhere if I can just find it, and the all important theme which was down the shops buying cigarettes but would be back in five minutes.

Tone is not an accident, not for an experienced writer. Nor is theme, and yet the best writers, those with the strongest, most gut-wrenching or intellectually invigorating themes, can write without worrying about their theme. How?


When we begin to get a feeling that a story is coming. I should add here I mean real writing not superficial trivia with a "clever" twist-ending, or that womag bumph or intricately-plotted shoot-em-up, or Dan Brown. I mean writing that matters a little, right now, writing that we return to, dwell in, savour.

When we begin to get a feeling that this kind of story is coming, what happens? If you get an idea, a plot-line, some clever tricks to post here and here and here, then I'm sorry for you. Oh, you might well publish. You might even be flavour of the six months, but you won't be writing.

What about the feeling, what about the ache?

What about that sense of pressure, of something deep in you or way back in time, or maybe some part of your life that only makes sense if you don't ask it questions? Don't you want to know who you are? Why you're here?

Don't you want to know what this is all about?

If we use the brain exclusively – I mean the logical left-brain, the bit we plan with, we cannot get "fresh", we cannot get "insightful". Instead we get the same old same old. It might be re-jigged (if we are really crafty) but it's still the same old. The active left-brain doesn't put things together that don't belong together.

The active left, interfering brain doesn't write:

I used to sit in the hall and stare at the geese on the wall, fascinated because one was chipped and had a white chalk beak. I am not sure I know what love is.

Because all those boring shapers, the life-police, told you that plaster of Paris ducks are nothing to do with "love". If you try to write that paragraph it doesn't happen. You have to let a better, more dangerous, more unpredictable person write it.

If we aren't using the left-brain. If we learn to sit still and let things rise up and emerge, those things are always better, truer, than what we do deliberately.

Think, most importantly about the many constituents of an opening. There is a setting, a tone, a voice, a level of complexity of language, a "colour", a timbre, probably a narrator, a character or characters, some air of musicality.

Where did they come from? Did you sit down with a team of advertising executives and Simon Cowell, and "thrash this thing out"?

Did you go to some stainless city office and listen to a Powerpoint presentation on the commercial viability of the darker character?

Or did something come to you?

If something comes to you, just comes, if you have feelings, these are the things, the powerful things that will matter. But you have to stand aside, trust the spirit, allow the souls of your ancestors if you like, allow the angels and demons to create.

Instead off grabbing at, or "considering", instead of planning why not ask (without asking) what's here, who is she, what does she sound like, what language does she speak? Stay low, don't frighten the visitor. She may have been in the dark for a long time.

This woman, this girl, this gift is incredible. You ask, how can I not control and yet write a controlled work? Surely it's impossible?

Of course, without help. But you have help. Look! She stands there, slightly bewildered. But all she wants is the tiniest of nudges and she will talk, exactly as you imagined, she will act in a way that always seems right, and because she came without force and emerged as a welcome visitor (from another place in you) she will now look after your theme.

Let me be boringly "straight" for a minute. Presume, temporarily, that what I say is true. We have a feeling about a subject. Maybe it's "something" about the cruelty of childless couples here, contraceptive abortions over there. It feels wrong, somehow but it's not as simple as believing abortion is always wrong, and not merely a rant against God. You feel the complexity of the issue, you almost feel you can express it, but it's so hard.

Then one day an abortion clinic is burned down and a passing child is killed. How confused? Or you read of a child who did not abort and is now a famous concert pianist. Something uncaps the ache. You need to say something.

I realise all this seems vague, but it's only "vague" because most of our lives we deal in greater certainties (which are false) and things which we believe are solid (when they are not.)

If you deliberately "take on" these issues, you are not going to access your deep feelings. You are going to access the front of the drawer where sound-bytes and simple fixes are kept.

I wrote a story once when I realised that my socks and underwear drawers each contain maybe fifty items, yet only the front five or ten are used, washed and re-worn. Think of the back of that drawer. We should be accessing it. Most of the time we live in the nearby, the simple, the quick and superficial.

So, instead of diving in, what happens if you close your eyes and see if anybody walks by? What might happen? A young girl who's pregnant? Her mother who's also pregnant? How about the unborn child or the recently aborted? I have no idea, because HERE I'm conscious, talking to you.

If you relax you might see a red sports car, a Frisbee, a line of Keats, and yet know they all combine and say something about abortion. If you learn to be still, someone will step forward.

If you learn to be still, someone will step forward, and that someone knows your point, she simply knows. If deep in you, despite what you might say publicly, something nags and says "wrong, wrong, wrong" you will NOT choose a real character who argues right, right, right.

Your inner self chooses the vehicle of expression. Think how often, when characters have just come, they feel known to you, like old acquaintances.

When I talk metaphorically I say that these characters are guardians of the theme. If they are spontaneous manifestations then they champion a real theme. If they are forced characters they are crude, obvious vessels for an obvious theme, and very probably the story will read like a polemic.

Damn! It's 12:30 and I have things to do.

OK let's try another tack.

When I see a set of flash-prompts posted that look "clever" and conscious, cold, cute. I expect fewer Boot Camp flashes to be written and a lower overall standard of story.

But when I see a load of lines or part-lines from great poems, a few odd break-the-spell words (the more bizarre the better) I expect more stories and better ones. The mere resonance and open-endedness of the poetic snatches seems to "set-off" the unconscious. Something is stirred.

That is, poetry and its effects are disorientating, mysterious, they come at us by entering through the foot or the elbow and bat us round the inner ear because they can. No frontal assault needed.

I believe that it's this subversive, playful, unusual "accent" in poetry that tends to release wilder (from the unconscious) emotions in those who read the prompts. Thus the resulting work is better.

We live in an age where we are inundated by clevernesses, but the very glibness and ease of these cute sound-bytes, the sit-com quips, the quick-fix knee-jerk, the tabloid headline crap (even Panorama cheats now), the pre-planned endings (but if you don't like the film's finish, we'll change it)… an age where shallowness is all. We escape by going under.

Billy Collins said: Poetry seems to provide, more than ever, an alternative to the din of public language (advertising, politics, etc) and a more admirable set of values than we find in consumer-mad society. I read recently about a poetry competition held in Barcelona every year. The third place poet receives a silver rose, the second place winner receives a golden rose, and the first place poet – for having written the very best poem – receives a real rose. So take that, all you fans of bling.

Arthur Polotnik said:

You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what's burning inside you. You edit to let the fire show through the smoke.

The point of this ramble is that to write about what's burning inside, we need to allow it air, to stand aside and let it burn us up. We have to learn to stand aside, be still, listen. We have to, though, trust our writing ability, which is why we must write, write, write, every day, every week, every month, so we can turn off consciousness. And then:

Somewhere, I know not exactly where, a grey campfire is kicked up, the flames catch again and are let loose. All catches alight.

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