Wednesday 26 December 2012

Literary discipline with Francine Rose: the significance of sentences.

Product DetailsApart from the Sarah Lund Sweater from the beloved, one of my favourite  presents - from my ever perspicacious  friend Gillian - was Reading Like a Writer  by the aptly named Francine Prose. I  have referred to her ideas here before but my Boxing day treat has been to sit by the roaring fire and  read this book wrapped for me like a Christmas prose present.
      Francine Prose is a great advocate of the very close reading of great writers, both to enhance our pleasure as readers and enhance our skills as writers.
    She clearly  real problems with academic approaches to the teaching of  literature. She dropped out of her PhD programme after realising that ‘literary academia had split into warring camps of deconstructionists, Marxists feminists and so forth, all battling to tellthe readers they were reading “Texts” in which ideas and politics trumped what the writer had  actually written.’ *
     Later she says of her students  ‘…They had been instructed to prosecute and defend these authors, as if in a court of law, on charges having to do with the writer’s origins, their racial, cultural, and class backgrounds.’
      Here, using as her authorities the work of such writers as Katherine Mansfield, Alice Munro, James Baldwin, Checkov, Heinrich von Kleist,and Virginia Woolf - Francine Prose returns to the fundamental disciplines of the word, the sentence and the paragraph  to illustrate the genius of such great writers before proceeding to their take on the familiar aspects of dialogue, character and narration.
     She focuses on examples of genius in a writer’s choice of a particular word to steer complex meaning in the right direction.  She showcases the way the structure of long sentences in some writers’ work delivers meaning and consequence in one beautiful flowing package.  Her examples of this process make me think of how one element in my own editing  is to shorten my sentences, make them crisper, more powerful. This is the modern way but listening to Francine Rose I will reconsider this instinct more thoughtfully in the future.

See for yourself:  on long sentences Francine Prose quotes the opening sentences of Stanley Elkin’s ' The Making of Ashenden:

' “All my adult life I have been a guest in other people’s houses, following the sun and seasons like a migratory bird, an instinct in me, the rich man’s cunning feel for ripeness, some oyster-in-and-r-month notion working there which knows without reference to anything outside itself when to pack the tennis racket, when to bring along the German field classes to look at a friend’s birds, the telescope to stare at his stars, the wet suit to swim beneath his waters when the exotic fish are running. It is not in the Times when the black dinner jacket comes off and the white goes on; it’s something surer, subtler, the delicate guidance system of the privileged, my playboy astronomy…” '

     Naturally she quotes Ernest Hemingway and further comments:

‘ Hemingway was not only thinking about the good and true and beautiful sentence but using it as sustenance – as a goal to focus on, as a way of  keeping himself going. And though it’s obvious that times have changed, that what was true of Hemingway’s era may not be true today, the fact remains that Hemingway not only cared about sentences, not only told his publishers that they mattered to him, but told his readers and told the world.
       The young would-be writers of great sentences can perhaps take comfort in the fact that Hemingway’s interest in sentences did not appear to have hurt his career...’

         And worth noting is that Francine's last chapter is entitled Reading For Courage.That appeals,. To be a writer today certainly needs courage,.

Now!  I must eat another mince pie and go away and take a good, hard look at my own sentences. That will be another Boxing Day joy.

A good way to use your Christmas Book Tokens, perhaps?

*Is one of the problems with some current Creative Writing degrees at all levels that they are staffed by academics stultified by this tradition?

Monday 24 December 2012

Christmas Always Makes Me Nervous

Hooray! The tree is up. I’d done my holly and ivy pagan decoration (see below) but had to wait for the arrival of the very special Boy Who Likes Chocolate (from univ. via London ) to tackle the tree. He’s been Involved with The Tree for the last nineteen years. For the last five years he has been In Charge of The Tree. As you see, it is room height and features his signature red/gold/white bands.

Christmas always makes me nervous: the urgent need to Enjoy Oneself; the worry about whether the present will work for this or that loved one; the need for the food to be extra special, the house beautiful. And then in the wider world we have the TV streaming models of joy and affluence impossible to equal, set alongside the shadenfreudic, often pompous, commentaries about debt and poverty homelessness and family conflict endemic in this season..

In older age one becodmes quite good at self-analysis. Despite the fact that our present day family Christmasses are sweet and seem to work out well, I know my deeply worried attitude springs from the far-from-idyllic Christmasses in my childhood. In fact it is symptomatic that – apart from reading A Christmas Carol - I can’t remember Christmasses between the ages of nine and eighteen.

But here we have TBWLC decorating a tall tree underpinned with bright shiny presents and t a kitchen charged with quite lovely promise for today and tomorrow. And - wonderfully - the Licked Spoon Entourage, complete with Barney the dog, arrives on Thursday. (With cookies - see her exquisite  Christmas blogs)

And all this I’m beginning to feel, will make a very memorable Christmas. As Tiny Tim says, ‘God Bless us Every One.’

So to you, very gentle reader, I wish a very peaceful, happy and memorable Christmas Eve, Christmas Day & Christmas season.


Thursday 20 December 2012

Spooky Paganism in the House?

The Holly Reflection

All this year I've been researching the lives of pre-Christian communities for my new novel and have become very sympathetic with the Pagan outlook.
So when G brought in whole swathes of holly and ivy from the garden and I started to decorate the house for Christmas I was visited by a very spooky feeling that echoed down to me through two millennia: the feeling of having lived other lives.

Bodes well for the book?

The Holly and the Ivy

"THE custom of decking houses and churches with ever-greens, towards the close of the year, appears to be of very ancient date ; it being, in fact, one of those remnants of Paganism, which, although forbidden by the councils of the early Christian Church, had obtained too strong a hold on the prejudices of the people to be readily relinquished, as its transmission down to the present day serves to prove..."

 From A Garland of Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern Including Some Never Before Given In Any Collection. Joshua Sylvester, Edited, With Notes. (London: John Camden Hotten, 1861).

I would like to wish a Happy Winter Soltice to all the gentle people across the world

 who take their precious time to visit me at Life twice Tasted

Monday 17 December 2012

Playing Truant in Cambridge

My view over the Master's Gerden
So close to Christmas it seems like playing truant to make a getaway to Cambridge with my writing friend Avril but we went without guilt. We stayed at Sydney Sussex College and my room overlooked the Master’s Garden. We ate hearty college breakfasts, had two decent dinners and otherwise dipped into Sainsbury’s – a mere step away – to make sure that we didn’t starve or go thirsty as we worked.

And work we did. We drafted, transcribed, discussed  then read out to try our writing in the air. I think we both achieved more than we would have at home in the domestic pre-Christmas flurry. 

Avril worked on completing a set of short stories with a very original format, reflecting her success in this field this year.  We have had many interesting discussions about the form and function of the modern short story. (I have a new collection coming out in the  Spring. 

But in Cambridge I was in the middle of that big heave of beginning a novel which sits in a particular historical time. This involves a kaleidoscope of research, thinking, imagining and transforming. My truant time in Cambridge has certainly made more clear for me the ambiguous, inchoate mass which is the foundation of this novel. Now it seems that I have made the great leap and think I may have the novel before me – not just that crucial first 20,000 words but in these four days of concentration the superstructure of the novel has emerged for me from the Celtic mists. 

No, we didn’t see ourselves as tourists. But yes I did notice the exquisite city of Cambridge. Its very fabric exuded the history, literature, philosophy and science which has formed the intellectual background for my auto-didactic generation, educated as it was in small colleges and institutions a world away from these exquisite temples of privilege.

My favourite building in this ancient city was the oldest church – a small church called the Round Church on the main road which leads to the Cam. I was excited about this, as - for this novel -  I’ve been   researching the round houses the so-called Pagan people of late antiquity before, during and after the Roman occupation. The fact that the road this church stands on was originally the Roman Road was the cherry on my research cake. I understand the design of the church was based on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. 

But for me – my mind fertilised by all this research - the atmosphere in the round structure of this church carried much deeper meaning and one way or another will have its impact on my novel.

As for playing truant - I returned home energised and guilt-free to embrace the delights of preparing for a family Christmas. I recommend playing truant to any dedicated writer. 

Two posts to come (also emerging from the Cambridge Getaway)
1. The Lithuanian girl on her way to China
2   Peopling Your Novel

Friday 7 December 2012

Literary Snobbery, Stan Barstow and John from Glasgow

One of the joys of posting here on Life Twice Tasted is the response that comes by many means and  from unexpected places. It is always good to see - as I can on my blogsite  - the way that readers range around the site and take a look at other, earlier posts as their interest is piqued.

So this week I spot three new brilliant sequential comments from John Haggerty of Glasgow on a post I wrote in August 2011 called Stan Barstow my Dad and Gregory Peck,  Click there if you want the full story including John's comments…
 Part of my discussion on this post was about literary snobbery. Among other things I said... ' ...These mean,  mistaken and ill conceived  phrases manage to combine the regional. literary, linguistic and class snobbery that still has a stranglehold on the British literary world. As a writer of some ‘regional literary novels’ myself I too have encountered this same frustrating prejudice . American literature celebrates fiction from its non-metropolitan regions and is much more deep, rich and  substantial for it...'

Stan Barstow G Peck and Dad
In his comments John Haggerty extends the discussion and,  among other insightful things, moves onto the field of music :

'....The Northern folk music scene has given us musicians as diverse as Anne Briggs and Kathryn Tickell. Kathryn's album, NORTHUMBRIAN VOICES, is a living testimony to that rich tradition. Anne has become part of British folklore. Is it possible to contextualise Barstow's work against this wider setting? Perhaps we need to rethink our notion of regionalism in the light of writers such as Ted Hughes, Alan Garner and Shelagh Delaney. It may be helpful to look at American (South and North) and Commonwealth writers. Maurice Gee, the New Zealand novelist, has put his own region on the world map. Dunedin, Wellington, Auckland are all very much Maurice Gee country. Gee's place-haunted novel GOING WEST is the kind of work any Barstow reader would relish....'

If your interest is piqued, go to the page and read it in full complete with John Haggerty’s comments. Click Stan Barstow my Dad and Gregory Peck,  You might even add your own comments!


Tuesday 4 December 2012

Creating, Drafting and Transcribing a Novel. The notebook story.

Too many notebooks. Maybe
People often ask me how I write. What is the process?
After saying very carefully that all writers evolve their own  idiosyncratic method I admit that I write my first draft by hand. These days this is met by a degree of disbelief and a kind of pity that one feels for a bag lady in the road.
'I would have thought computers would have been a Godsend for you! Make things easier.' Then (add in kind tone of voice) 'They're very easy to use you know,'
Well, I do know,. I love my  computer(s).They are brilliant for instant researching, for blogging and Facebooking. I was a pioneer in that field.  I remember the joy of my first wordprocesser, an Amstrad 9512 - such a brilliant improvement from my electric typewriter and my bottles of SnoPake.  I shudder at the thought of the state of my original manuscripts - which were accepted by publishers . Never mind. Daphne du Maurier sent her publishers scribbled hand scripted drafts.
I like to write in ink pen
I now have and use an office computer, a standard laptop and a notebook computer as well as, more recently a tablet, So nowadays my transcribed drafts go out in that immaculate computer written form that I recommend to all my students.
I have experimented with drafting straight onto the screen and have found it very limiting, Staring at a blank screen hinders the creativity, the imagination. As the pages build up on the screen they are too finished too complete, too self referring, insufficiently open. They have too much authority and too little vulnerability.
Maps are the current obsession...
The only way for me to write the first draft of a novel is in a notebook (NOT loose pages) with an ink pen.
I normally (but see below) write in bound hardback A4 notebooks. (Cheap from Rymans...) I only write on the right hand side of the page leaving the left hand space for insertions, scribbled self-instructions and amendments.
I often customise the cover with drawings. paintings and collages to make them particular to these stories. And after so many novels the notebooks give a shape to this and I know that the currency is this: three fully drafted notebooks equal one full length novel of about a hundred thousand words. Give or take.

But with this new novel when I embark on the first lot of transcription, (About 20 thousand words in) I find that I have scenes and scraps, brainstorms and locations in five different notebooks. I can blame that on my habit of writing on trains, in cafes, pubs and parks on whatever is to hand. So the transcribing of this first part of the novel has been something of a  challenge as I spent time hunting down scenes out of sequence.

So I have given myself a good talking to and created a new A5 (ie handbag friendly) notebooks as  a prototype into which ALL the new drafting for this new novel must go. Here it is. I hope it works.

Just a thought. Writing whole books is hard work. But unless you make the process creative, satisfying and fun it becomes just another job instead of just more joy.


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