Books have been my life’s companion, alongside plants. Maybe my laptop runs them a close race now, although I don’t have an e-reader. But am I a writer? I do write, and I have been said to be a good writer, though you may judge. Even the remote possibility that I may be a writer of Something (academic essays, poetry, blog-posts) does not make me a writer of anything which might be published, nor especially the writer of a novel. I’ve had the idea in mind for years, always procrastinated. There are so many disincentives – the idea, the sustained effort required, a fear of failing to produce anything I would be satisfied with, and now, most of all ‘the market’. So much dross emerges from so many aspirant writers, there’s something in me which now deters me from even trying: a weak position. Has everything been said? Not by me … Yet now I have the time, I have few other claims on my attention. Surely at this point the will to do it has not ebbed away?
It’s a cliché that everyone has a book in them. I think I have a book in me too. My life has contained both the usual and the unusual experience, permitting me to think I could write something both accessible and novel. In my travels I have encountered many people, both ‘types’ and individuals more or less recognisable. My interest in psychologies and social dynamics brings me to ask the questions whose answers might be the stuff of a novel. Yet a dilemma has long plagued me – how to disguise the experience or the person? And in my awareness of the human tendency to stereotype I question my own ability to avoid cardboard cut-out characters, and repetition. Even here, over short entries and a few days I have the feeling that I’ve said it before, and to the same listener – how dull! We repeat and repeat until we learn a lesson, then the urge to voice the thing evaporates. Maybe I would rather not bring forth this book in me, but continue to cherish the idea of the book. I’m aware as time passes that the will to bring anything into the world, to be a burden to me or others, is weakening. Maybe to have the idea , turn it in the light of the mind and see it sparkle, then let it slip away, is enough. Now, rather than making more things, it’s more a de-cluttering phase of life. I’m shedding the accumulation of six decades. But, humanly, it seems one must have ‘occupation’. Could writing be part of that occupation?
As a reader, what do I read? Even before reading, I do like a good picture book. Sometimes the words are too much effort! One can look at a beautiful book for hours. There are long journeys in picture books, and the thoughts they provoke can be an enthralling as words written.
“Reading novels needs almost as much talent as writing them” (X. Trapnel in ‘Temporary Kings’ by Anthony Powell). I read novels, even of the lighter sort, and I would never assert that science fiction, fantasy, or comedy are empty of worthwhile content. But I do also like a challenge or something more experimental as well as the purely narrative (Will Self). I gravitate to certain themes; psychology, the quirks of religion, gender, art, madness of various kinds; and tend to avoid the environmental as too close to the bone, not really the stuff of fiction. But I do wonder whether too much novel-reading engenders over-stereotyping. If each author has a tendency to write their own stereotypes, may those not reinforce my own?
I both read and write poetry. Nobody knows. Or they do, because I tell them. But there is, maybe, a kind of reluctance to publicise something as fraught with misunderstanding.
Biography also feeds into the willingness to think one knows a person by what they write. Whether a bad person can produce good art (of whatever kind) is a vexed question into which I might delve elsewhere. Thomas Hardy, Henry James, T.S.Eliot. Is it my imagination, or do I like female biographers of male subjects? Must be some inaccuracies of interpretation there!
Recent non-fiction has considerably improved my understanding of surprising facets of the world . ‘Oxygen: the molecule that made the world’ by Nick Lane brings together some extraordinary insights into how life on earth emerged, and how a substance can have very contradictory aspects. Mark Lynas’s ‘The God Species: How the planet can survive in the age of humans’ challenged some of my environmental positions, although as a person with a low threshold for risk, I would not concede all his points. ‘Sapiens: a brief history of humankind’ by Yuval Noah Harari will be my next reading venture. It has to be admitted that I have a bedside stack several high.
Finally no list would be complete without the ‘how-to’ manuals, which feed my (easily-sated) hunger for the new, or otherwise my search for the One activity which will absorb my creative powers until they ebb away completely – weaving, gilding, calligraphy, bookbinding, tassels and cords … part of the book-burden which I shall maybe soon shed. My short attention-span has threatened the structural integrity of my bookshelves – I am weighed down with diversity. A startling aside here is that what goes around comes around. A book recently borrowed from a friend, Sheila Hicks on her small weavings, looks remarkably like the craft offering from the Women’s Institute which I so nearly acquired from the Haslemere Transition bookstall at the last Farmers’ Market. A discussion on where art becomes craft must wait a future entry, except just to note here that the physical book is a beautiful and satisfying thing, which will not, in my view, be replaced by technology. A book is a material possession, baggage in all senses.
But all this lovely reflection on past enjoyment of books gets me no further with my own contradictory urge towards writing; stifled, thwarted, frustrated though it may be, certainly unproductive to the present time and still hesitating. My hidden intention here is to develop the habit of writing, form a body of work however superficial, inspect my themes and enthusiasms and maybe tentatively approach some stories, and ‘have something’ to show for all my talk. Procrastination is said to be best addressed by answering the question “What can I do Now?”Well, this is what I can do. What I do Next may involve the Story itself, retreating, mentoring, an agent … but is all rather nebulous so far. Let it emerge.
If I could write a book, or series of books, it would be somewhere between ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ by Anthony Powell, and Harry Potter. I want my book first and foremost to be massively enjoyable for the reader. I would like a wide readership and of course I want to win a prize or make a lot of money. Maybe I only want to satisfy myself that I have written something which seems good to me, even if I have not been read. Maybe I only want to Write something, not even good, not even have it published. The bar both raises itself and lowers itself all the time.
There would be psychology, a group of misguided individuals following a misguided guru, and their respective motivations. There would be representation of the interior life, and examination of what behaviour emerges from it. “What did not happen in public had no reality for G.””With G., everything was within himself.” (Anthony Powell) There would be a morphing of what I know of people into something unrecognisable; changes of situation, motivation, gender. The compound characters would bring the reader recognition but no paranoia. There would be ‘what I know’ – the mysteries of art and plants, the particularity of growing up in the suburbs, of family life in small towns. There would probably be little conversation, maybe I would resort to being the omniscient narrator in some way: after all, we all like to believe ourselves omniscient, do we not? There would be poetic expression – no too demanding experimental discord. There would be excellent grammar (I might need some help with this). There would be a pseudonym. Sometimes this is as far as I get. Who am I? It would be a material book, maybe even with illustrations – no e-publishing, I think. Aah … dreaming again. Most likely there would be, in another decade, some bonfire of my authorial vanities.
At least, writing occupies less space than both reading and making. And thinking occupies no space at all.