Friday, 21 November 2008

Angel and Devil!

Today I'm going to nag you and tempt you, like those little angel/demon figures in old Tom and Jerry cartoons: 'No you mustn't!' ... 'Aw, go on! You know you want to!'

First, the virtuous bit. At the end of October, I posted about NaNoWriMo, where people sign up to write 50,000 words in a month. I've been keeping an eye on some of you and the ups and downs you're experiencing - around this time quite a few are at the 35,000 word mark. This is brilliant! I decided not to participate, but there are times when I wish I had. I just couldn't choose which project to pursue and am not feeling the love just now with all things compositional. If you, like me, are not a participant, I would still recommend a look at the NaNoWriMo site: (And can somebody please tell me why when I type a link like this it doesn't automatically get a little line under it anymore to make it function as a link?)

If you go to the Breaking News page or the Fun Stuff page, either should lead you eventually to the pep talks page and this is useful and inspiring. They've asked various famous writers to give advice and encouragement, the latest being Philip Pullman. I recommend looking at his advice, and that of Naomi Novik, Jonathan Stroud, Sue Grafton and Neil Gaiman. If you read through them all you'll find common ground - they all say that a novel begins as a 'burst of enthusiasm' (Grafton). After the 'honeymoon period' (Stroud) the pain and disillusionment set in. It may be at Chapter 2 or at page 70 (Pullman) or much further in - but it will happen. You will run out of steam, run out of self-belief, feel no joy anymore. Ah yes, you're nodding your heads, aren't you? We've all been there. The only answer is to plug on - which these writers advise in wise and witty ways. Sue Grafton says: 'Focus on the job at hand. Ignore the urge to second-guess yourself. This is not the time for introspection; it's a time for charging on. Believe in yourself.' Naomi Novik says: 'Remove distractions. The internet ... is [a] phenomenal tool for procrastination and wasting time. Unplug your connection' - she's right, you know. You can do that after you've finished reading this blog - only after that, understand? Jonathan Stroud says a deadline is a great idea, forcing you to break the task down into manageable chunks: so many words a day, so many pages per month. That's the 'real writing', after the honeymoon and the 'phony war' where 'Scenes start promisingly but peter into nothing. Main characters turn out to have all the zest of a cardboard box abandoned in the rain.' (Careful - all that nodding is going to give you neck-strain.) Neil Gaiman reinforces this: 'You write. That's the hard bit that nobody sees. You write on the good days and you write on the lousy days. Like a shark, you have to keep moving forward or you die.' Philip Pullman concurs, saying you mustn't lose momentum: 'One of the hardest things to do with a novel is to stop writing it for a while, do something else, fulfill this engagement or that commitment or whatever, and pick it up exactly where you left it and carry on as if nothing had happened.' Given his level of fame he must be speaking from the heart: he is working on 'The Book of Dust' after the massive success of the His Dark Materials trilogy and he must have to keep his phone off the hook permanently. He adds: 'once you've established a daily rhythm of work, you'll find it energising and sustaining in itself. Even when it's not going well. This is a strange thing, but I've noticed it many times: a bad day's work is a lot better than no day's work at all.'

You're so right, Philip, we all say, nodding like crazy. Fired up, we turn the computer on, bring the document up - we last wrote a bit five months ago. We scrabble around for plot notes scribbled at the time. If we find them, we try to decipher the hieroglyphic cryptic directions: 'John gs X time to rply then Z ftttts'. We click onto Tools: Word count. Disappointing. Sigh. Type a few words. Erase said words. Type again. Tools: Word Count. Sigh. Need cup of tea. Type again. Decide 1000 words a day far too ambitious. Type a few more words. Hate them. Word count. Wail. Adjust daily word count ambition by incremental steps down to 500, 350, 200. Give up two hours later having written 163. Still, it's 163 closer to the goal than yesterday - or five months back. Mary Wesley was about 80 years old before she was published, wasn't she? That's OK, then.

Here's another suggestion: I'm not sure whether it's angelic or demonic. Angelic in intention, I suppose, demonic in execution. Go to - where there's a widget called 'Write or Die'. Dr Wicked the inventor of this instrument of torture says: 'The idea is to instill in the would-be writer a fear of not writing.' If you are writing, the Write or Die gizmo will penalise you if those keys stop clicking busily. In Gentle Mode 'a box will pop up, gently reminding you to continue writing', in Normal Mode, 'If you persistently avoid writing, you will be played a most unpleasant sound. The sound will stop if and only if you continue to write.' And in Kamikaze Mode, 'Keep Writing or Your Work Will Unwrite Itself!' Aarrgghh!!! If anybody out there has tried this fiendish widget, let me know whether it worked for you!

Finally, wearing my demon's horns, let me tempt you, my Literascribees - betake yourself to - I have my friend Muvva to thank for this one. I had no idea it existed until she mentioned it in her blog A Propos of Nothing in Particular (see side panel blog roll) - and I tried it out late last night. More than an hour vanished like magic as I racked my score higher and higher. If you are NaNoWriMoers, for God's sake, don't go there! Don't! (Aw, go on ...!)

Friday, 14 November 2008

The Last Fighting Tommy

Well, you could argue that, as with all anniversaries the media lock onto, we've had overload - over the past few weeks the First World War has featured everywhere. It's certainly been usefulto me professionally, as I'm currently teaching it as a literature topic. During the week I've been collecting The Guardian's series of booklets on the war and they've been fascinating. I paid more attention than usual to Sunday's Remembrance service and was so moved by the three surviving veterans, Bill Stone (108), Henry Allingham (112) and Harry Patch (110), visiting the Cenotaph on Tuesday with their wreaths of poppies. On Sunday I recorded the programmes about Wilfred Owen and about Vera Brittain, who lost all the men she loved during the war, including her brother Edward, towards the very end of it. On PoemRelish, my other blog, I mentioned her memoir, 'Testament of Youth' among other books worth reading about WW1. On Sunday I found myself wondering why, among this plethora of 1914-18 nostalgia and analysis, the Beeb wasn't repeating the excellent serial version of 'Testament of Youth' first broadcast in the 1970s. It starred Cheryl Campbell as Vera and it was a truly powerful and poignant piece of television drama which brought me to the book, before I ever had to teach it. Now I've found out that, apparently, they're remaking it, so that's why the original was not shown. Hmn. Mixed feelings: it's good in a way that they are, as hopefully it will bring more people to awareness (and we have to rely on the TV screen more than the written word for this these days). There's no reason to assume they won't make a good job of it second time round. But on the other hand, there's that old saying 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' The original was brilliant - why not just re-show it?

I've just finished reading 'The Last Fighting Tommy', the biography of Harry Patch, who is the last man in Britain who actually fought in the trenches. He fought - and was wounded - at Passchendaele. Harry Patch featured on the BBC a few years back and has become famous for his longevity and his memories; his fame has grown as the number of survivors has declined and we all find ourselves unnerved at the prospect of the First World War sliding inevitably out of living memory. He is a man of immense spirit, who didn't really talk about his experiences until he was in his nineties. His eyes still fill with tears when he recalls what he saw and felt. At first I felt a slight disappointment with the book as the war experience (the thing that, essentially, is used to sell the book) doesn't take up all that much space. He trains, he goes over there, he sees the bad stuff, he's wounded by shrapnel, he's invalided home, all in a matter of months. Is that it, then? Well, no. It dawned on me that that's the point: this is the story of an immensely old man, on whom those few months made a great and terrible and lasting impression. His memories lurked within him all through the decades that followed and they have never left him, though all the friends and fellow soldiers, two wives, two sons, and a whole way of life have departed. The book is worth reading because not only does it tell you about that war, it tells you of a century of British life and culture. Harry's childhood was Edwardian: no running water, little awareness of the outside world, little material wealth, harmony with nature. He was a child for whom news of the sinking of the Titanic was of little interest - it took place beyond the narrow limits of his West Country life. After the First World War and during the Second, where he served as a member of the local fire crew during the bombing of Bath, Harry was the sort of Englishman who just got on with life: he is and was, essentially, a decent man, uncomplaining, raising his family, going to work to earn his crust as a plumber, a man who believed in a right way of doing things, who has no patience with pretentiousness or self-indulgence. Bless you, Harry, and even longer life to you: we don't want to lose you, our twentieth century Everyman.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Three Cheers for Blogging

As you know, I usually post to this blog on Thursday or Friday. Yesterday I posted to my other blog, PoemRelish, for the first time (shamefully!) in months, so please do go over to it and take a look. Remember, PoemRelish isn't about my own poems, which, dear readers, I won't inflict on you - it's where I can talk about the poems that I love - without having to set an A level essay question on them! It's about sharing the pleasure of words and perhaps drawing your attention to poems you might not have otherwise discovered.

Once again, I find myself celebrating the very concept of blogging. Yes, there is the danger of reporting trivial minutiae all the time and there is the risk of being totally self-focussed, self-obsessed, self-aggrandising. But the one thing that I have always loved about it is, as Mel Gibson bellows in that well-known hokum version of Scots history, 'Braveheart', 'FREEDOMMMM!!!' As a blogger you write as and when you wish and how you wish and about any topic you please. What could be better? I'm going through a pretty tough time with regard to my own writing and I can't tell you what a comfort it is to have this blog - and this communication with some lovely people whom I've never met personally but who take the time to post comments, who are witty and fun, who are sympathetic and whose blogs lead one in turn to discover yet more writerly blogs, some of which are absolutely brilliant: sparky, feisty, moving, informative, self-deprecating - and all of which reassure us in this desperate writing community we all inhabit, because they tell us we're all in this together. We share the ups and downs, we congratulate success, we nag and encourage, we condole with the distress of rejection and self-doubt. We're in a community - which for writers who are apt to pace the floor or stare at a blank page with an even blanker mind, who can be isolated even within their circle of friends and family because no one understands what they do, no one comprehends the hunger to create, is absolutely crucial. We're each others' comfort blankets. Aw. Time to wheel on Tiny Tim to say 'God Bless us, one and all'!