Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Was it all worth it?

This was a couple of years ago, right?

The air had been turning autumnal all week and the light had already closed in letting an early darkness coil around the tiny garden.  Hanging from the tree were fairly lights, all silver and gold which she  told me they’d rescued from a Christmas tree found dying in a street before January, decorations discarded and all.   It had been a terrible festive season for someone.   She had been standing next to me, her head leaning on my shoulder as we escaped from the clinging heat inside .  Standing on the terrace, the open French doors allowed the music, something electronic, I can’t remember what, to follow us.  Suddenly, she’d straightened up and walked into the middle of the lawn.  She’d lit a menthol cigarette to cut through the thick wine head developing and then she twirled to the music through the smoke hanging in the air whilst the beat swelled and the dual slices of electric light cut into the grass.

From the block of flats behind a light was switched on and the back of the garden burned with fluorescence.  She stopped her half-dance and scowled.

‘I hate that,’ she said and sighed.  ‘I don’t like the idea anyone seeing me.  I’m almost too private, I guess.  I don’t need lots of friends, just a few people to be kept close.’  She took a step closer to me as well as a half drag on her cigarette before letting it fall into the grass, still smouldering.  ‘I’m not comfortable with everyone knowing everything about me.’

The next but one time we spoke I told her that I couldn’t see her again.  I felt bad - I didn’t handle it very well – but, amongst other reasons, if that was how she felt, at some point I would upset her, here, with words and I didn’t want to go through that again.  I upset my ex numerous times and if I could go back and change that then maybe I would.  There were times when she was looking for a fight, perhaps, and times when I helped make it easy.  I’m a little more subtle these days, and besides the format has changed from tale of the week to something more structured, but, still, even when it was on purpose it was never worth all the hassle. 

I’ve found that people react in different ways.  Not to having a blog – lots of people have lots of variously dorky, serious, specialist interest, broad scope blogs – but I have put a surprising amount of personal information on davidmarstonwrites and that usually gets some sort of reaction.  I’ve never hidden behind any layer of anonymity and maybe that’s a mistake.  I suspect it has cost me at least one job interview and one girl, a pretty girl I met over the internet.  I liked her. We saw each other several times arranging things through the website and then text message, but when we swapped email addresses and she got my surname I never saw her again.  That’s okay.  I understood, but the words were there.  In my head.  Waiting. 

 When I was a teenager I wrote a novel.  It was very much a fourteen year old boy’s novel.  There were wizards and elves and goblins and a pilgrimage.  It was the first part of a trilogy.  There probably wasn’t a decent sentence in it, but it was one hundred and thirty-four typed pages long and it took me months.  I wrote at least two, if not more, drafts.  I’d worked hard at it, almost certainly to the neglect of my schoolwork, and yet, I didn’t tell anyone.  I finally told my very first girlfriend as we lay on my single bed, our lips mildly chaffed and sticky. 

‘Can I read it?’ she asked.

‘Of course,’ I lied for I already knew both that it wasn’t, really, any good.  And that I was about to break up with her.

I’ve always been reluctant to let anything less than perfect be read by anyone, but slowly I’ve learnt that the words are never perfect.  They're never finished, but sometimes you just have to abandon them to their fate.  There’ll almost always be a failing somewhere and just because I can’t see it doesn’t mean I don’t know it’s there.  So nothing happened.  No-one read anything.  In which case, what was the point?

And eventually here we are.  One of the things I wanted to do with the blog was to overcome that hesitancy, to share.   It gives me a deadline, self-imposed of course, but none-the-less an expectation exists.   I like the immediacy, the imperfection of it.  I am happy that I make mistakes.  The purpose was to write and for the words to be read, not for anything to be perfect.  Then, suddenly five years have passed.  Five years.  Over two hundred posts.   Somewhere in the region of six hundred thousand words just about... Well, about me.

Me and the words.

I find myself reading back through those early entries.  My God, but they’re badly written.  At the very least they feel rushed.  They lack elegance.  There is, I think, a poorer sense of style than I employ now.  Of course, that too has always been a problem, as I suspect it is with most people:  I nearly always think that whatever I’ve worked on most recently is great and the further I get from anything the less I like it, the more it feels like someone else wrote it.  Which probably means it was never as good as I thought it was, just that I have a too strong attachment to the darling sentences I fight to give birth to.

I reread the first entry.  It was supposed to be a sort of declaration of intent from a boy of twenty-eight, still freshly salt and sand drenched from the Mediterranean whom I barely recognise now.  There’s something about careers which seems highly naive.  There’s something oddly predictive about my ex, who at the time wasn’t, which I’d completely forgotten about.  There’s some stuff about weather and space and the other background things I know I still put in for context, the scaffolding from which I can hang a point

 In retrospect, it was ridiculously optimistic.  I imagined, with the knowledge that it was something of a daydream, but still there was a real hope, almost an expectation there, that I would blog and complete a creative writing masters course and produce a novel, get an agent and then a publishing deal, write another novel and then... I don’t know what.  Spend a lot of time at my computer writing with someone paying me and translating all the words in my head into stories.   It was all going to be so fucking easy.

Life, huh?

Still, I guess that’s sort of what happened.  I’ve written, more or less, three novels.  One I reached the end of, but stopped redrafting when it no longer became something I wanted to tell.  Another I have finished but can’t sell.  A third I am currently redrafting.  I spend a lot of time at my computer, a lot of time in my head, but no-one pays me.

How, I asked five years ago, can I call myself a writer when I haven’t been published?”  And okay, I’ve had a couple of short stories published but not much and yet I egotistically think of myself as a writer.  Or, at the very least, someone who writes and maybe that’s the more important definition.  My name is David Marston, and I write. 

’There’s something else I should tell you about,’ I said a couple of years ago, as my then only just new girlfriend and I lay under a swooping tree in Hyde Park where the sun dappled in spots across us.  I had already confessed to not being able to ride a bicycle and she’d taken that pretty well so I thought I’d go for broke.  ’So I sort of write this blog thing.’

‘Oh, I know about that.  I googled you ages ago.’

She knew and it didn’t matter, despite the fact I was, at the time, writing Returning East, a travelogue about the east London line, the history of the areas it cut through and my personal relationship with them which was evolving chapter by chapter into something I hadn’t quite expected.  As, it appeared, was my life.

Whilst I was pleased that my girlfriend didn’t seem unduly concerned about me putting such personal information on the internet, for the world to see, and I think she quite liked the idea of dating a writer, I’m not too sure she realised quite what she was letting herself in for.  Words, you see, are, essentially, some bad shit.  They can be the devil.  They come spurting out and sometimes there’s no way to get them back in.  They tell lies as frequently as they tell the truth.  They’re powerful and difficult to control and they can whip up some crazy voodoo so that what’s made up threatens to boil over, off the screen and out into the world. 

We’re eating fried octopus balls at a Japanese place in Brixton Market on a Saturday evening.  The sun has been shining all day and it doesn’t get much better.  She always smiles prettily when she laughs and it always make me smile in turn. 

The waitress takes our plate and an empty bottle, breaking the conversation.

‘I saw a bit of your last blog, printed out, where you’d been editing it,’ she said changing the subject.  ‘It had some stuff about me in it.’

‘Yeah, you read that.’

‘I know, but I guess I didn’t really notice.  Something about a book that was unread.’

‘The Accidental, by Ali Smith.’

‘It’s second hand.  It must have been read.  I don’t want everyone to think I’m not literary.’

‘You read.  You have good taste,’ I reply.  ‘But you haven’t read it, have you?’

‘I tried, but I couldn’t get into it.’

‘It’s brilliant.  Absolutely amazing.’

‘It’s rubbish.  Nothing happens.’ 

I shrug. 

‘Anyway,’ she jokes, ‘I think you should publish a retraction in the next edition: the author wishes to correct the impression that his girlfriend doesn’t have good literary taste.  It’s not that she hasn’t read, whoever the women is, it’s just that she didn’t like it.’

‘Okay,’ I smile, compliantly.

‘Bet you don’t,’ she smiles back, but the thing is I already know I will and I know that this conversation will appear more or less how we held it and that I’ll be taking a liberty with her trust, but the problem is:  It’s the words.  Whilst I’d try to stop if she asked me, she won’t and so I have to deal with how addictive they are by myself.  They get at your gut, pull at you to use them, to write.  All the time.  In the depth of the night, on the train, when you’re supposed to be concentrating on something else they come and they whisper in your inner ear demanding to be told. 

At the end of the first davidmarstonwrites, I suggested that my decision to throw away my former career and embark on a creative writing course would either be the best decision I ever made or a complete and utter disaster.  "Either way, I thought it’d be fun to let you watch."  Unsurprisingly, it ended up being neither.  Instead, it helped me find who I really am.  Like a soap opera or a serialised drama it keeps going round and round in circles, stuff happens, jeopardy presents itself, there’s a girl or a dark moment of doubt, and then in the end the status quo reasserts itself:  I remain someone who writes.  I’m going to keep doing that and my self-mythologising, over-inflated sense ego means, my lovelies, that you get to keep reading.

Hold on tight now.


Tuesday, 4 September 2012

ReReading 5: Women (and rewriting)

It occurred to me, shortly after accusing Martin Amis ofmisogyny, that all the writers I’ve included in my rereading list are male.  They’re not all white, but, whilst I don’t know for sure, I suspect they’re all middle-class.  They all write in English as their first language.  Is this a problem?  It’s not wholly representative of my average reading habits and diversity in one’s choice of literature, much as it is in music, is important.  A record collection solely encompassing white boys with guitars makes for very dull listening, and so it is with reading.  If I were only to read what people like me had to say, then I’d never learn anything new.

All very noble, but then again, whilst I do own a wide array of music by people from all walks of life sung in a multitude of languages, there are, if I’m honest, a lot of white boys wearing jeans in four of five piece bands with guitars and drums.  As I typed this the first time round I listened to the Cure’s Pornography.   On the redraft it was It by Pulp.

So, perhaps subconsciously, I have picked out a group of writers most representative of my library.  Oh, dear  The intention was to try and explain how my reading habits, and therefore my writing habits, have changed over the years. 

These days I don’t approach novels, or authors rather, in the same way an obsessed teenager might do with music, or bands.  It is vaguely acceptable if one enjoys, say, a White Stripes album to investigate the rest of Jack White’s music with his other bands.  I once thought that novels could work the same – see Graham Swift, Martin Amis, Gore Vidal and Don DeLillio.  I was wrong.  Novels, more than music, reflect the person who you are at the time, not who you once or were or even who you might be.

The investiture one makes with a novel is so much greater both in time and emotion, for both the consumer and the artist.  An album can be trashed out in an afternoon, if you’re the Beatles in 1963, or at least a matter of months.  The bands that spend years intensely working on a record, Guns N Roses or the Stone Roses for example, are the exception.  And it’s usually rubbish when it finally turns up.   For the novelist it takes years of full time work to craft a fiction and then to recraft it.  One thousand words are, arguably, harder to come by than three minutes parts of which are repeated.  You’re not trying to capture a zeitgeist, but to be true to the voice that you’re dragging out from the depths - unless you’re, say Howard Jacobson, in which case you’re just using Howard Jacobson’s voice in every book.

Similarly, we consume music differently.  An album takes forty-five minutes to listen to and then, presuming that it’s any good, will be heard dozens of times in the same the year and beyond.  A novel takes as long as it takes to read.  I, probably, average just over one a week, but I’m odd.  For most people it’s more like a fortnight or three weeks and probably it will never be picked up again.  With that in mind the idea of consuming the entire works of someone is a little bit strange.  The author is probably trying to make each piece as distinct from their other books as possible, to make that investment of time worthwhile, to make something unique, possibly simply because they’ve changed.  Just because one enjoyed their first novel does not mean that the second or third will be to your taste.  You can read faster than they can write.

(There are exceptions, of course.  Evelyn Waugh claimed it took about seven weeks to write a novel. Quite what he spent the rest of his life doing is unclear.  Drinking, probably.)

So, the books I’ve been rereading are from another time, a time when I wanted to have an understanding of modern literature but didn’t really know where to start so just kept reading the same people.  Again and again.  And now, ten years or more later it feels as though sufficient time has passed to revisit and reassess the books that made me.  I got the occasionally nostalgic fuzz or the odd memory sparked by a sentence or a scene, but largely I found myself burying into the words, oblivious to everything else, looking for the screws which hold it all together.

But no women writers for some reason.  Who should I have included?  Who am I sufficiently au fait with to write about?  I know quite a lot about JeanRhys from my interest in writerly drunken fuck-ups, but I’ve only ever seen the television adaption of Wide Sargasso Sea so that doesn’t count.  E. Annie Proulx, whom I notice seems to have recently dropped the E?  I got slightly obsessed with her for a while but I’m not sure I can manage her landscape drenched metaphors anymore and besides that woe-is-me-I-have-a-massive-house memoir she wrote irritated from the reviews alone.  MJ Hyla Great writer with powerfully intense sentences, but I know nothing about her.  Margaret Atwood, been there before I think.  Ali Smith?  Brilliant, absolutely amazing writer full of wit and compassion and eloquence and gorgeous turns of phrase, but most of my copies of her books seem to have gone walkabout, probably in a box in a shed in Warwickshire, and whilst my girlfriend has a copy of the Accidental, ssh, it looks unread.

Nicola Barker, now there’s an author. Seemingly equally at home with short stories, short novels (Clear) and big sprawling epics (Behindlings, Darkman) she plays with language and the space on the page until it all falls apart then with a kiss of genius breathes a newer, better life into it.  Phenomenal.  At one point when I still retained hopes of You’ll Never Be Joe Strummer finding a publisher I had a tag line in my head of “like the bastard child of JG Ballard and Nicola Barker.”  I was trying to craft a dystopian punk novel with left-wing politics, broken hearts and an onomatopoeic conversation between the narrator and the reader at its heart, but that description was still somewhat over egging the metaphorical pudding, not to mention over-stating my own talent.

So, Nicola Barker.  Genius.  And whilst I think I will reread Behindlings next I’m not going to rewrite anything to make myself appear more gender inclusive.  What’s said is said and done is done.  Besides rewriting is what I’m spending most of my time doing at the moment.  I finished the opening draft of the novel about an architect who thinks he’s Phillip Marlow but finds himself stuck in Brideshead Revisted (that’s a tonal description by the way not the actual plot) back in May and have been editing and cutting and tweaking to get to a proper first draft ever since.  The blog is the only free form prose I’ve had the opportunity to bash out in months.  A fiddle here, a tweak there, move a sentence around, shift a semi-colon, change a full stop for a colon, that will by my writing life for the next year or so.  That and cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, rewrite, cut, cut, cut.  Rewriting is predominately destroying.  All the difficult births your darling sentences had, no matter how much you cherish its lyrical charm, is it doing enough?  No?  Get rid of the git.  Writing fresh words, making shit up as I like to put it, is so much easier.  Now I need to immerse myself inside it  all, hold the whole plot in my head, speak the voice, stick to the rules (except those consistently broken deliberately), be the whole damn thing. 
That’s why rereading is so important.  Read once and you’re enjoying the ride, thrilling at the plot, crying with the characters, wrapped up in the author’s arms for comfort (unless, obviously, it’s rubbish).  Read twice and more you can start to pull it apart, understand its anatomy, what really makes it work.  Hopefully by thinking about other people’s work in that way I can understand my own and par it down to the parts that it really needs, discarding the ones I think it would be nice for it to have.  If you’re looking for me over the next few months, I’ll be trapped inside my own words trying to break them and lovingly polishing the ones that survive