The Writer Who Never Writes

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If you want to write, you should write. Otherwise you might become one of those people who are brimming with ideas, while perennially on the verge of penning a story.

Oh, but the writer’s block!

Oh, but I’m not ready!

Oh, but …

I fear the verge more than I fear the blank page. However, I do acknowledge there is an inherent resistance present at the beginning of any project. The mind, like the body, prefers stasis. That is why getting started with an activity is often a challenge, but also why once on a roll it becomes easier to stay on a roll. 

When you’re writing a piece in a single sitting, getting yourself into that chair is harder than staying there. When you’re writing a larger body of work that requires many sittings, getting into that chair is hardest the first time, but still an achievement every other time.

The question is: what if you’ve been planning to write, planning and plotting and note-taking for days and weeks and even years, but it’s come to nothing because you haven’t thrown down that first word?

Augusto Monterroso wrote a short story exploring that situation. His thirty-four-year-old protagonist, Leopoldo, has been devoted to literature for half of his life, but seems unable to surmount that crucial first hurdle. In the Quote, Leopoldo is considering writing a story about the pecking order in corporate society.

Quote: He made a note that he needed to take notes, and he wrote in his notebook: “THE PECKING STORY. Visit two or three large department stores. Make observations, take notes. If possible, talk with a manager. Get into his psychology and compare it to a chicken’s.”

—from Leopoldo (His Labors), translation from the Spanish by Edith Grossman.

What makes the Quote quiver?

The psychology of a chicken. (Specificity.)

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The Unnatural Act

Reading is an unnatural act. Unlike the appreciation of aural and visual arts, reading requires conscious effort even before deep interpretations are sought. Children see, smell, touch, hear, and learn to speak, before they master the written word. It’s the hardest form of basic communication. Harder still if it courts the edge of the expected by riding upside down on the underbelly of unnatural beings while holding onto its senses by the seams of its straightjacket. Hardest of all, possibly, if it’s …

… surrealism.

Dali flashes before the mind. But, that’s not what I mean: the visual mind sees, then interprets or doesn’t. Reading surrealist literature, however, is an act of spike-studded iron will (and no little amount of curiosity for the quaint that you hope no one else ever finds out about).

Forget drinking from a firehose—firehoses gush at you, and it’s just water. Think instead: a fountain spouting body parts, balloons, beetles, bronze tables and acid blue jackets floating between the blessings and the bronchitis, and you roll up your trousers, step over the rim into this bizarre potpourri, get dragged down by something slithering in the water, but continue sitting in there with water up to your chin, collecting random floating objects and putting them together like legos—creating your very own Frankenstein. Occasionally you pluck up a memory or a scar. Occasionally you cut yourself.

Who said that exploring the unexplored within the safety of a book was good practice?

I’m not trying to be off-putting.

Actually, I am: if you’re not the kind to throw yourself into the aforementioned fountain out of curiosity (or spite, or kink, or whichever particular personal quirk), I would recommend fishing out only choice morsels and grappling with them on dry land.

You might discover you’re developing some odd tastes.

Today’s rather tame Quote comes from The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington. She died in 2011 at the age of 94, and was one of the last surviving participants in the Surrealist movement of the 1930s. This is how she opens her short story called The Royal Summons. 

Quote: 

I had received a royal summons to pay a call on the sovereigns of my country.
The invitation was made of lace, framing embossed letters of gold. There were also roses and swallows.
I went to fetch my car, but my chauffeur, who has no practical sense at all, had just buried it.
“I did it to grow mushrooms,” he told me. “There’s no better way of growing mushrooms.”
“Brady,” I said to him, “You’re a complete idiot. You have ruined my car.”
So, since my car was indeed completely out of action, I was obliged to hire a horse and a cart.

(Translated from the French by Kathrine Talbot with Marina Warner)

According to the information you have, where is the car? Take a guess.

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The Softness of the Pillows: Quirks and Perks

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Imaginary beings live on the thin strip of fancy between sobriety and nonsense—the one we all walk at least twice a day on most days, just before and just after sleep (the hypnagogic and hypnopompic states). To complete the previous two posts on imaginary beings, Hamlet and the n-dimensional Hyperplane and The Goofus Bird Flies Backwards, today I offer two quotes, from two very different authors, describing this creative threshold of consciousness.

The first is from Bruno Schulz’s short story Mr Charles, included in his collection The Street of Crocodiles (translated by Celina Wieniewska). He’s the only European I’ve come across who writes magical realism with a panache to match South American authors (I touch on this in Between Infinite and a Sneeze and Charged With Eternity). Note the richness of metaphor and simile.

Groping blindly in the darkness, he sank between the white mounds of cool feathers and slept as he fell, across the bed or with his head downward, pushing deep into the softness of the pillows, as if in sleep he wanted to drill through, to explore completely, that powerful massif of feather bedding rising out of the night. He fought in his sleep against the bed like a bather swimming against the current, he kneaded it and molded it with his body like an enormous bowl of dough, and woke up at dawn panting, covered in sweat, thrown up on the shores of that pile of bedding which he could not master in the nightly struggle. Half-landed from the depths of unconsciousness, he still hung on to the verge of night, grasping for breath, while the bedding grew around him, swelled and fermented—and again engulfed him in a mountain of heavy, whitish dough.

He slept thus until late morning, while the pillows arranged themselves into a larger flat plain on which his now quieter sleep would wander. On these white roads, he slowly returned to his senses, to daylight, to reality—and at last he opened his eyes as does a sleeping passenger when the train stops at a station.

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Three Words: Quirks and Perks

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Quote: Perfection is round.
—Anne Carson, Red Doc>

Perfection is simplicity: As of 3rd September, the Quote throws up six results on Google, all of which are Carson’s citations. In today’s age that translates to: she said it first.

Three words, two ordinary nouns and the most frequent verb of the English language in its most frequent form. And it’s not nonsense.

Let’s start with the verb.

Even though “to be” is often used to equate and identify, simple sentences centring around it are not obviously semantically symmetric: round is perfection, means something else. Think: the circle, the sphere, the sun—often taken as symbols of the ideal, the perfect, the godly. In both the Quote and in round is perfection, the subject complement states a property of the subject. Indeed, perfection and round are—as Carson says of two utterly different things—parts of each other / although not parts of a / whole.

Therefore, is is a simple verb that can denote mutual inclusion without denoting equivalence.

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Big Silver Pin

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If there’s no silver, settle for gold

Quote: 

It happened by accident. Geryon’s grandmother came to visit and fell off the bus. / The doctors put her together again with a big silver pin. / Then she and her pin had to lie still in Geryon’s room / for many months.

Today’s Quote from Anne Carson‘s Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse could also have been an excerpt from a prose piece. (I talked about the structure of her novel in verse in Dark Smell of Velvet)

A few observations without knowing any context:

  • Four sentences, four (or more) facts.
  • The tone is emotionless, straightforward.
  • There is an awkward, creepy feeling between the lines.

A bit of context explains some of the above: Geryon is a small boy, who is also a red-winged monster; the close third person narrator is saying why Geryon had to move out of his room and into his brother’s. The Quote is heavily filtered through this unusual boy’s mind, with the purpose of not only providing the back story, but more importantly, providing insight into his worldview.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Figurative language delivered as fact.

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Metaphor: Quirks and Perks

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Hearts of crockery: easier to break. Or are they?

 

Quote: Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.

This is one of Raymond Chandler‘s most famous quotes. If you haven’t read The Big Sleep you may think it comes as a closing line of a grand argument or as a poignant reminder of life’s tragedies during a display of heightened emotional turmoil. You may think it, but er … I guess I shouldn’t tell you. It is at least true that the protagonist says it and not some minor character or the antagonist (e.g. in Goethe’s Faust Mephistopheles gets some of the best lines).

Hard-boiled detectives in general, and Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in particular, are descendants of the nineteenth century romantic heroes—think Goethe’s Young Werther who got it all started, Dumas’s Dantès, Pushkin’s Onegin—those self-destructive, misunderstood, lonely souls that pursue justice or a higher truth on society’s margins. So it is to be expected that Marlowe should contribute to this romantic tradition with a statement about love, death, and the thing that causes both and lies in the middle: life.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Shimmering depth.

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Language: Quirks and Perks

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Quote: Language has all the suppleness of human flesh, and something of its warmth.
—Arthur Quinn, Figures of Speech: 60 Ways to Turn a Phrase.

Quinn’s book is a short, gently humorous introduction to figures of speech with plenty of examples. (At their simplest, figures of speech are a form of speech artfully varied from common usage.) My eye caught on the metaphor in the Quoteas it felt fresh and apt, in a heartwarming way despite the mention of flesh.

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The Art of Writing: Quirks and Perks

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Here’s the author of The Martian Chronicles and the classic Fahrenheit 451on where and how to find what to write about.

Quote: We all are rich and ignore the buried fact of accumulated wisdom.
— Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

This could be said of most aspects of our lives, not just writing. Even the tiniest experiences can be mined for gems and insights. A paragraph down, Bradbury elaborates.

From now on I hope always to stay alert, to educated myself as best I can. But, lacking this in future I will relaxedly turn back to my secret mind to see what it had observed when I thought I was sitting this one out.
We never sit anything out.
We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled.
The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.

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The Daffodil and the Preserved Prunes

Quote: His girded spirit sees agrarian unrest in the daffodil and industrial riot in a tin of preserved prunes.

That’s Christopher Morley writing in his essay, Thoughts on Cider, taken from his collection of humorous essays, Pipefuls (1920). In the Quote, Morley is referring to a poet called Dove Dulcet. A bit of internet snooping suggests that Dulcet may have been Morley’s pseudonym, or that Dulcet may have been a literary agent. (Let me know in the comments if you know the answer.)

The Quote tickled my fancy in more ways than one. There’s the minor mystery of who Dove is; there’s the minor question of what exactly is meant by a girded spirit; there’s the poor daffodil with unrest in its soul, and the poor tin of prunes brewing riot within its walls.

I sought to explain the girded spirit by referring to the context of the Quote.

Dove is one who has faced many and grievous woes. His Celtic soul peers from behind cloudy curtains of alarm. Old unhappy far-off things and battles long ago fume in the smoke of his pipe. His girded spirit sees agrarian unrest in the daffodil and industrial riot in a tin of preserved prunes. He sees the world moving on the brink of horror and despair. Sweet dalliance with a baked bloater on a restaurant platter moves him to grief over the hard lot of the Newfoundland fishing fleet.

I was left with a sense of: spirit girded by sorrow and discontent.

But the daffodil! Yes, I agree, girded spirit or not, who could accuse a daffodil of such subversion? (Tinned fruit has always been suspicious, I’ll give him that.)

What makes the Quote quiver?

Shock tactic.

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Knowledge: Quirks and Perks

Diversity

“Metaphor is the currency of knowledge.”

Luca Turin, quoted by Chandler Burr in The Emperor of Scent

(In The Emperor of Scent (2003) Chandler Burr tells how Luca Turin, a French-Italian biophysicist, originated the vibrational theory of olfaction and struggled to be heard within the scientific community. Exciting non-fiction book, lively prose, highly recommended.)

Metaphors, by their non-literal nature, are built on disparate knowledge.

Here is the full quote:

“Metaphor is the currency of knowledge. I have spent my life learning incredible amounts of disparate, disconnected, obscure, useless pieces of knowledge, and they have turned out to be, almost all of them, extremely useful. Why. Because there is no such things as disconnected facts. There is only complex structure. And both to explain complex structure to others and, perhaps more important—this is forgotten, usually—to understand them oneself, one needs better metaphors.”

I agree with his viewpoint.

This week’s quotes may have been rather dark, with Richard Morgan’s mass murder, China Miéville’s ambulatory corpse, and the humour of suicidal and homicidal birds from E. B. White’s essay Mr Forbush’s Friends, but perhaps that’s alright.

All sorts of knowledge come in handy: deep and shallow, dispiriting and uplifting, morbid and pure. Indeed, staying away from the nasty, reading just about the nice, would leave us few verbal and mental tools — perhaps even leave us an unexercised imagination — with which to fight the daily melancholy of our own lives, let alone some fiercer trouble. Facing demons within the safety of literary worlds is practice, and the only kind of practice we can get before reality strikes unreservedly, untempered.

PS (added on 5 May 2017): I just noticed that Ian McEwan said in his 2002 interview for the Paris Review: “We need to play out our fears within the safe confines of the imaginary, as a form of hopeful exorcism.”

Avian Black Humour

I see him, again, concealed in the lowest branches of a spruce on a small island off the Maine coast—a soft, balmy night. He is observing the arrival of Leach’s petrels, whose burrows are underneath the tree—eerie, strange birds, whose chuckling and formless sounds might have been the conversation of elves.

This is E. B. White writing in his essay Mr. Forbush’s FriendsWho and what and, dear me, why elves?

Edward Howe Forbush wrote Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States (1927–29), a book E. B. White cherished and returned to over the years, and subsequently wrote about in the aforementioned essay calling it “a three-volume summation of the avian scene”. Through his own writing, White transmitted Mr Forbush’s enthusiasm and even found merit in his rich prose occasionally touched with purple but never with dullness or disenchantment — high praise from the co-author of Strunk & White, where Omit needless words is a dictum carved in stone.

A rather dull topic for those not interested in birds, isn’t it?

But, no!

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Ambulatory Oxymoron

Death at the lectern; we’d have a lot to learn

Quote: The disappearing body quickly became shorthand. Anything lost was considered pocketed by our ambulatory corpse on its way home. Unexpected noises in the corridors were the incompetent creeping of the revenant.

This is China Miéville’s disappearing body from The Design, published in his collection of short stories Three Moments of an ExplosionA body has disappeared from the dissection room where medical students study anatomy, and we are hearing about the atmosphere that developed thereafter. A morbid setting, but these are students of medicine, who have learned, perforce, to joke about their environment.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Deadpan delivery of compressed paradox.

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The Written Word: Quirks and Perks

From Volume 8 of Prose and Verse ... by William James Linton.

Read and Write

On metaphors, quotations, and the continuity of literature, while the world and the times change. From one of the best books about books, A Reader on Reading, by Alberto Manguel.

Metaphor builds on metaphor and quotation on quotation. For some, the words of others are a vocabulary of quotations in which they express their own thoughts. For others those foreign words are their own thoughts, and the very act of putting them on paper transforms those words imagined by others into something new, reimagined through a different intonation or context. Without this continuity, this purloining, this translation, there is no literature. And through these dealings, literature remains immutable, like the tired waves, while the world around it changes.

Alberto Manguel, in AIDS and the Poet, from A Reader on Reading

There. Something for the weekend.

Metaphors the Colour of Television

Stormy skies

Quote: The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

Another opening line of a novel, this time from Neuromancerby William Gibson. The Quote sets the mood and era of the book accurately. Mood: gloomy. Era: television. Try writing a metaphor about a dead television channel for generations born in the complement of the twentieth century and you’re in trouble. (Year of publication: 1984.)

Incidentally, Neuromancer got the Cyberpunk literary genre going; William Gibson was the first to use the word cyberspace in a 1982 short story, and in Neuromancer he actually gives the definition: “Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators … ”

What makes the Quote quiver?

Mood and setting. Continue reading