Thursday, 30 December 2010

The anti-social writer

It’s getting to me now. We have had ten staying over for Christmas. Every room in the house filled with people – my younger son even burst in while I was on the loo yesterday. Nowhere to hide. Don’t get me wrong: it’s been great seeing everyone, exchanging gifts, drinking, playing games; then after a few days my brain starts to suck at itself, seeking something to ingest. There’s a grating at my temples. These are the early signs of a craving to engage once more with ideas, with material, with writing, or at least thinking around the writing.

It is a need rather than a wish. The sloth in me simply wants the easy, flop-around-the-house style of living, but I have to write, like a heroin addict has to shoot up. I guess the addict has no relish for the needle, and I do not relish my return to the keyboard   - we are both drawn by the craving. It hurts if we try to resist it. And just as the addict slinks away to some hidden corner to get on with the business, so does the writer, equally furtive. I’d be embarrassed if someone walked in on me now, while we’re still officially festive.

Even the most gregarious of writers are anti-social for long periods. Some have to be forced into solitary – Dylan Thomas was famously locked in a BBC studio by a producer to finish a radio play, and again by his assistant Liz Reitell to complete a rewrite of Under Milkwood – while others have to tear themselves away: “Close the door, give out that you are not at home, and work” is what the French writer Joseph de Maistre advised.

Mostly though, it’s the craving that gets you here. I’m feeling easier already, writing this. As good as a glass of Christmas malt.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Write wit

For Christmas: some quotes and quips about writers and writing.
We’ve all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare.  Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true.

The best way to become a successful writer is to read good writing, remember it, and then forget where you remember it from.
Gene Fowler

If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster.
Isaac Asimov

Write as if you are dying.
Annie Dillard

Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.
Jules Renard

The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.
John Steinbeck

Writing is no trouble: you just jot down ideas as they occur to you. The jotting is simplicity itself - it is the occurring which is difficult.
Stephen Leacock

A writer is someone for whom writing is much harder than it is for the others.
Ken Laws

I write when I am inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.
Peter de Vries

Having imagination, it takes you an hour to write a paragraph that, if you were unimaginative, would take you only a minute.  Or you might not write the paragraph at all.
Franklin P Adams

Writing is easy.  All you do is stare at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.
Gene Fowler

There’s nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.
W W ‘Red’ Smith

What no wife of a writer can ever understand is that a writer is working when he’s staring out of the window.
Burton Rascoe

What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.
Samuel Johnson

That writer does the most, who gives his reader the most knowledge, and takes from him the least time.
Charles Caleb Colton

Never use a big word where a diminutive one will suffice.
The waste basket is the writer’s best friend.

Editors don’t reject writers;  they reject pieces of paper that have been typed on.
Isaac Asimov

Writers should be read but not seen. Rarely are they a winsome sight.
Edna Ferber

When audiences come to see us authors lecture, it is largely in the hope that we'll be funnier to look at than read
Sinclair Lewis
Punctuation is the sound of your voice on paper.
Joseph Collignan

English spelling is weird...or is it wierd?
Irwin Hill

The role of the writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say.
Anais Nin

What I like in a good author is not what he says, but what he whispers.
Logan Pearsall Smith

How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.
Henry David Thoreau

The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.
Samuel Johnson

How do I know what I think until I see what I say?
E M Forster

There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up a pen to write.
William Thackeray

He can compress the most words into the smallest ideas of any man I ever met.
Abraham Lincoln

It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by then I was too famous.
Robert Benchley

There’s many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.
Flannery O’Connor

It is still an unending source of surprise for me how a few scribbles on a blackboard or on a piece of paper can change the course of human affairs.
Stanislaw Ulam

We do not write in order to be understood;  we write in order to understand.
Robert Cecil Day-Lewis

Any proper writer ought to be able to write anything from an Easter Day sermon to a sheep-dip handout.
Sir Kingsley Amis

To sum it all up, if you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling.  You must write every single day of your life, you must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next.  You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads.  I wish for you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime.  I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you.  May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories.
Ray Bradbury

POSTSCRIPT: See also my April 2012 post: Write wit 2 and my December 2012 post Write wit 3.

Friday, 17 December 2010

The page of dreams

Tara’s comment on my last posting, where she told us that her dreams were an important source for her creative ideas, got me thinking about how dreams influence my own writing. I realised that I have waking dreams, edge of sleep dreams and deep sleep dreams, which all work their spells in different ways.

The waking dreams are those I get when I deliberately move away from my computer screen or blank sheet and lie down (usually on the floor) to steep some subject or story line in my head for a while. What I’m intending is to concentrate without distraction so that I can work something through, but what really happens seems to be the opposite of concentration; my mind drifts, not in an entirely uncontrolled fashion, but as if I’m taking a leisurely flying carpet ride over the world I’m imagining, without a known route or destination. I apprehend rather than ‘see’ what I come across along the way, and more often than not the journey ends with a start, like an abrupt waking. Sometimes it makes me literally jump, and within moments I’m back to the page with something new to say, some direction to go in, without having consciously ‘worked it out’. A magic carpet ride. 
Van Gogh's The Starry Night

I suppose what I’m experiencing is what Vincent Van Gogh meant when he said, I dream of painting and then I paint my dream. Judging by Van Gogh’s output (over 2,000 works), he must have put in a lot of dreaming. I put in a good deal of this kind of dreaming too; not nearly so much output, though I genuinely believe I do more writing when I’m not writing.

The edge of sleep dream I get at night in my bed, and almost always it’s a troubled dream that replays some problem or difficulty I am having in my writing. It nags at me like a toothache, and stops me from sleeping properly. At its worst, chillingly, it convinces me to give the whole thing up as a bad job. It’s no good. You’re no good. Blagh.  These edge of sleep dreams are worryingly frequent.

Fortunately, they are usually followed by the deep sleep dream. Without being aware of it, I find that whatever the problem was seems to have resolved itself by the time I’ve woken up. It’s as if I needed the nagging rehearsal of the worry so that the deep brain can process and work on it while the consciousness has a rest. Occasionally, a deep sleep dream is capable of delivering a whole story idea apparently without the collusion of the conscious mind – a Eureka moment that is rare and precious as a new-born (and more vulnerable; the mortality rate on Eureka moments is so high the World Health Organisation really should look into the matter).

Steven Spileberg
You could of course argue that everything a writer does is the product of dreaming; certainly that seems to hold for the fiction writer, and for the screen-writer – Steven Spielberg says he dreams for a living, and he has enshrined the idea in the name of his film studio, DreamWorks.  

I wrote a moment ago that I dream, then write, but, no, it’s not so clear-cut. I think every writer would agree, when the work is in full flow, there is a trance-like quality to the state we’re in; and we are in that world we are creating, unconscious of any other, as fully as we are in the deepest dream. The world is somehow already there for us. Our pen is like a torch beam revealing more, as we press on, of the roads, the turns, the travellers, the details on the page.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Where do you get your ideas from?

It’s the most common question asked at the end of a talk, and the most difficult to answer. Or rather, there are so many different answers.

·         An abiding memory or recollection (the starting-point of We Never Had It So Good)
·         Something heard or read that starts the mind turning (my interest in reading about the railway Stephenons would not have given me the urge to write a novel had I not been intrigued by the dramatic decision of young Robert to go off on a risky venture in Colombia only months after his father had installed him as managing director of their locomotive-building company – this became the main impetus for writing Mr Stephenson’s Regret).
·         A stray thought that occurs while doing something else, with some loose association (the inciting incident for 11:59 came from listening to a late night radio phone-in while driving, and thinking, ‘What if...?’).
·         A headline in a newspaper (started the sub-plot of 11:59).
·         An evocative word or phrase (the theme for the stories I’m currently writing emerged from thinking about the folk definition of a Geordie as one born within the smell of the Tyne).

There are a dozen more possibilties. I suppose most could be generally grouped under the notion, ‘Life happens: something sticks.’ The trick is to pin it down when it does. I have always kept an Ideas File, and I make a new entry when anything remotely promising occurs to me – I write a note in the form of a provisional title and anything from one sentence to three paragraphs about the appropriate casing for the idea (a story? a play? a novel? an article?) and how it might develop. 99% of these ideas will never go beyond those few sentences, but I get them down quickly before they disappear altogether, and because I never know which is the 1% that I may eventually husband and grow into a capable creative life form.

As with any gardening, some plants seem to start well, then unaccountably wither and die. Others, that you thought were flowers, turn out to be weeds. (How frustrating that is for the writer/gardener; all that labour spent.)To continue the metaphor, one flower does not a garden make. It is not enough to have one idea to sustain your piece of work; you must germinate others along the way. Some of them come from the scoping and planning before you get deep down into the soil, but I’m always amazed by how much takes root and spreads right there beneath your fingers as you work, nudging with impatience as you dig channels and clear paths trying to bring some sense of order, some coherence of colours.    

Stephen King, writing about writing, has also described the process as like digging, but he sees it less like a gardener than as an archaeologist slowly uncovering the bones of a huge fossil – dinosaur, or whatever – that is already there. It’s an interesting notion, that somehow the story is already there, waiting to be found. Where do you get your ideas from? The question seems to imply that there is a bank of ideas you can tap into, but what if King is right, that somewhere in our collective unconscious there are whole stories awaiting discovery? It would help explain the phenomenon descibed by many writers, and that I have experienced myself, of our characters telling us where we must go next, as if there were indeed some pre-determined track to follow.

Maybe the reason so many people seem to be fascinated by the source of ideas is that they have felt something there themselves, something tantalisingly out of reach as they have not the tools to excavate. Maybe the real answer to Where do you get your ideas from? is that they are universal, lying somewhere in all of us.