I sometimes cry too… definitely beautiful!
This is going to be the year I read more novels.
Last year was a year – a glorious year – of poetry, of short stories, of essays, of non-fiction. But I missed that feeling of sinking into a novel. And for me, 2010 is going to be all about improving my concentration.
So, being the true geek I am, I’m also going to start a record of all the books I’ve read this year. With a little reminder of what I liked, or didn’t like, about them. And some favourite lines. Not a review, so much as the sort of book report I had to do at primary school.
Imagine this blog now has nice thin lines, thick margins and some gold stars for good measure. I will try to not to blot my ink, or to scribble too much.
1. The Soul Thief by Charles Baxter.
This has real echoes of Patricia Highsmith, a university student meets the enigmatic Jerome Coolberg and gradually feels his life (and soul) are being taken over. The book is in four sections, taking us through Nathaniel Mason’s life into adulthood. A truly spooky read, with some nice gaps to fill in. For a book that is so good on human psychology there are some GREAT descriptions of place.
The city, as a local wit has said, gives off the phosphorescence of decay. Buffalo runs on spare parts. Zoning is a joke; residential housing finds itself next to machine shops and factories for windshield wipers, and, given even the mildest wind, the mephitic air smells of burnt wiring and sweat. rubbish piles up in plain view. What is apparent everywhere here is the noble shabbiness of industrial decline. The old apartment buildings huddle against one another, their bricks collapsing together companionably.
Oh, so much to love there. Smells first – why do writers always forget smells, but this takes me right in. But also that last description of the apartment buildings – somehow those bricks collapsing together companionably is such a delicious surprise.
The book is beautifully written, and even more beautifully constructed. I am going to go back to this one and tear the structure apart to see how he has done it.
And in any other business, my brother, Henry Peplow, who has written a children’s novel that is just quite amazing and is currently looking for a lucky publisher (if any read this!), suggests I tell you about this, Kidlit Contest. Done!
Any novel recommendations welcome btw. And for more sense about books, look at the Cornflower. She sometimes provides cakes too!
I have come to think of my writing self as a little self-centred, more than a little childish but luckily easy to confuse, so here are some tricks I’ve played on myself to get those words onto paper.
1. Give yourself a word count for the day and keep to it.
Depending on your own process, it may be 200 words, 500 words, 1,000 words, 2,000 words, but make a pact with yourself that this is the amount you are going to do every day.
No matter what else happens.
The secret is not in fulfilling it (after the first few days) but stopping when you’ve reached it. There will be days when you want to go on and on writing, but making yourself finish at the exact word count – even in the middle of a sentence – will send you back to the page the next day. And then the next.
2. An alternative to a set word count is to do what Hemingway is reported to have done, and deliberately finish mid-sentence.
It sounds daft, but it really does make it much easier to get into the work the next day. I’ve seen it called, Parking on the downwards slope. A phrase that sums up the perfect picture for me.
3. Have a soundtrack to a particular piece.
This is what I have done for every novel so far. It helps me get into the voice of my character, and the mood of the book.
Because it’s the same song every time, I soon stop listening to it but having it in the background, lets me sink straight into the writing.
4. Ask questions.
After you finish writing for the day, write yourself a question for the next bit of your project. Or your new project. Then when you come back to your desk, concentrate on the question you’ve set yourself. The writing will come naturally.
5. Use a mixture of carrot and stick.
Put away all the things that distract you – facebook, twitter, emails, the phone, today’s crossword – until you have written as much as you have set yourself for the day.
And then enjoy them with your full attention. Plus some chocolate, or a glass of wine, or whatever rocks your particular world.
* READ ME
I was lucky enough to go to Frank Auerbach’s exhibition of London Building Sites 1952-1962 at Somerset House in London during its last few days.
Because the exhibition is over, I’m not going to tempt you with all the paintings you can’t now see, but the similarities between the painting process as outlined by Auerbach and the writing process were fascinating. And when the process is that of a master, there always something to learn.
For example, the catalogue notes state:
He would work and rework a painting in a restless search for a unique image, trying to achieve what he describes as a ‘formal grandeur.
The critic David Sylvester claimed that Auerbach had ‘extended the power of paint to re-make reality.’
And in this drawing and painting of the same site at Bruton Street, Winter 1953, I could see exactly how this reworking achieved both the grandeur and the re-making of reality.
From this precise drawing of the scene…
… this painting was created. It’s hard to see at first how the two match up until you see the triangle in the forefront, the line on the left.
As the notes explained, it was ‘an attempt to find a secret internal geometry that lay behind it, the core.’
And it’s precisely this core I realised I search for so fiercely sometimes in my own writing. I like the idea of it being ‘a secret internal geometry’.
And this painting below of a building site in Earls Court Road, 1953, the actual reality is hidden, but Auerbach writes: ‘Though nobody else may be aware of it, I’m aware of the amount of painting experience that’s buried under those heavy lumps of black and white and ochre.’
And of course, it is exactly this power that comes out.. But what got me was the discipline and sheer hard work involved in searching and searching for the authentic core of the scene.
This isn’t someone who just hung around waited for the muse to strike.
And from sketches like these four below, Auerbach manages to achieve an ‘emotional truth’ in his painting that leaps off the canvas by
amalgamating elements for different sketches from different sketches in the paintings, rather than replacing one particular view, in order to achieve a composition with power and integrity.
In a series of other sketches and paintings, the exhibition notes state that Auerbach often broke off from his work on principal paintings to produce small drawings and paintings. This:
allowed him to develop the composition freely and spontaneously
even the smallest as an exercise to loosen up his brushwork, others were attempts to resolve the composition, structure and detail.
A useful reminder to keep trying to see the story from a different angle. To play on the page. To work through a technical problem by producing more work.
And most of all, to trust the process.
Now we’re getting to know each other, let me share five of my deepest secrets with you ….
Wow. Do they make you smile without meaning to? Your stomach turn over and the butterflies to start jumping? Can you feel them in your mouth already? Aren’t you just longing to use them in your next sentence?
No. Well, probably not because they’re my words. And just as we are all different types of writers, so we have our own secret words. So what are yours? Make a list of five words you can hug to yourself next time you face the blank page. The words that are just for you. Imagine them lining up behind you, on your side with their crossed arms and snazzy sunglasses. Or maybe they’re in the bath, scenting and primping and beautifying themselves, waiting for you to finish your ten minutes writing for today.
Fall in love with words. And most of all have some fun with them. Learn that words aren’t your enemy, and that your job isn’t just to march into a certain place in the sentence before forgetting all about them. Yes, some words are useful soldiers, but the special ones? They’re just temptresses. Enjoy.
It is the way
You are not
And if you look again, the books above aren’t real. It’s a detail from my new beautiful painting.
Not that I’m obsessed or anything. But really, is there anything better than books ‘to furnish a room’?!
I know I’m not the only one to be feeling helpless by what’s happening in Haiti, and it seems wrong somehow to be posting anything even halfway trivial today. Here’s an email I got from the Avaaz organisation which shows one way to help, so I’m posting it exactly as I received it.
Haiti’s worst earthquake in 200 years struck yesterday, devastating the capital city, killing thousands and threatening over 3 million people in this desperately poor country.
Haitians are urgently appealing to the world for help — we’re already in touch with strong local organisations mobilising community-based relief efforts. Let’s send a worldwide wave of donations to the front lines, to save lives now and help people recover and rebuild. Avaaz will work partners to make sure the help reaches those who need it most. Click below to donate:
Based on expert advice from leading humanitarian NGOs who have been working in Haiti for over 30 years, we’ll offer donations to trusted local organizations, including:
Honor and Respect for Bel Air, a big community-based network in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, which is also supported by our friends at the respected Brazilian NGO Viva Rio
Coordination Régionale des Organisations de Sud-Est (CROSE), which brings together some of the most active community groups in the South of Haiti where the earthquake struck hardest. These groups include: women’s groups, schools networks and local cooperatives
In 2008, Avaaz members donated over $2 million for Burmese monks to respond to the devastating Cyclone Nargis. Our money made an incredible difference there — because it went directly to local people on the front lines of the aid effort.
Times of painful tragedy can bring out the best in us by bringing people together. Let’s join with the people of Haiti to help them rescue their communities from this brutal disaster — act now at this link:
With hope for Haiti,
Luis, Paul, Graziela, Paula, Ricken, Pascal, Alice, Benjamin, Milena and the whole Avaaz team
Haiti devastated by massive earthquake:
Thousands feared dead as major quake strikes Haiti:
Deadly earthquake hits Haiti: