Sunday, July 22, 2012

In which I let my hair down a little, go out on a limb and offer a little advice (but the cheek of it)

The usual: I'm driving up to London on a Sunday morning, with nothing else to do but keep my eye on the road, and I think of all kinds of things I should like to write about (which - crucially - don't involve the bloody euro: you're fed up with reading about it here? Not half as much as I am about writing about it here. For one thing, I have nothing original to say and merely repeat what has been said 1,000 by everyone else who think it's a dog's dinner, and for another, like the weather, there is bugger all I can do about it, bugger all you can do about it, and bugger all he/she/it can do about it.)

One of the things I could do is to use this space as a kind of note pad and sounding board. I have found, curiously, that I sharpen my ideas far more when I am debating something with someone rather than just mulling something over on my own, and I often find that I sharpen my ideas more if I try to set it and related matters down on paper. Which  brings me to the first thing I might record: a few truths about writing I have garnered over the years, either from reading or hearing someone else's view or from personal experience. So, in no particular order:

1 It doesn't have to be perfect from the off. It is quite crucial to realise that. The trick is to get started, then to carry on and then to finish. Revising can come later, once it is all down on paper. And what you initially put down on paper - writing this on a laptop word processor means obviously that 'putting it down on paper' is meant metaphorically - doesn't even have to be 'good'. It just has to 'be', it has to exist. It might sound like an outrageous truism, but a flawed, quite awful completed novel, short story, script or play is 1,000 times better than an incompleted piece of work. And far, far better than one 'you have in your head'. That is worth nothing, but once it is down on paper, it can be improved, then improved again, then again, until you get it to the point where you think it is reasonably worthwhile.

2 No one, but no one, is in the slightest bit interested in 'your work'. Years ago, I came across a piece of wisdom whose provenance (i.e. where I heard it and how I came to hear it) is so banal, I would hate to tell you and so I shan't. But that piece of wisdom, obvious once you have understood it, is all-important. It is this: just as you are the centre of your world, everyone else, without exception is the centre of theirs. Crucially, that means you are not the centre of their world, you never were and you never will be. So your work is of know interest to them whatsoever, especially when you are still completing it. They just don't want to know. They might be too polite to tell you, but they aren't in the slightest bit interested. Not one jot. Once you have completed it, they might, just might, be interested if it amuses them or entertains them in some way (and I mean 'entertain' in a far, far broader sense than you might at first think. More of that, perhaps, later).

3 This might well be summed up in a coarse, but highly truthful observation: we all love the smell of our own farts. The corollary is, of course, that others don't, and however much you point out the positive points of that fart, how others have rather missed the point of it, they still won't. Think about it: when were you utterly disgusted by the smell when you have farted? The answer is: never. That's the odd thing about our own farts: we don't mind them and so we lose all proportion about them. To expand that thought, when you produce anything, and I'm sure this goes for piece of music of any kind, a painting or a sculpture just as much as a piece of writing, you might think it is a piece of genius or, at worst, rather good. It is, of course, nothing of the kind. What is even more dangerous is that you probably think it is excellent or reasonably good for one reason: you produced it. But it's not.

4 Another observation I came across years ago and which strikes me as being eminently true is that 'sloppy writing betrays sloppy thought'. If you sit down to write anything and find the task rather difficult, it is only because you haven't thought about it. I would even suggest that all writing takes place and is often completed in the mind long before any words are set down on paper (OK, clever dick, tapped out on a computer keyboard). The more you think about what you want to write and how you want to write it, the greater chance you have of producing less than awful work.

5 Having made those four points, I should stress that they are merely points I have made for others, perhaps you, to consider. They are not rules, because and, this is both the easiest and hardest point to get over: there are no rules. Whether you are writing something, painting something, composing something or doing whatever you are trying to do - there are no rules. You can do what the hell you like. You can do anything you like. Now here's the catch: whether anyone is in the slightest bit interested in what you have produced is quite another matter. Your 'novel', for example, might consist of writing the word 'love' 60,000 times.

Fair enough, but I would bet my bottom dollar that anyone would ever bother to carry on reading it after 20 seconds, and no amount of explaining 'what you were trying to do' will spark any further interest whatsoever. When I was still doing a lot of photography, I would often visit photographic exhibitions and see some great pictures. But what always put me off in some exhibutions would be an A4 sheet of paper next to a quite ordinary photo 'explaining' explaining what it is all about. As far as I am concerned those photos should stand on their own. If they need some kind of longwinded exposition about why they are good and worthwhile, they are simply nothing of the kind.

There's is, what is, if I have got this right, something called The Intentional Fallacy. The debate centres on whether a work of art should stand alone without us knowing the first thing about the author, composer or painter. Some argue that knowing some details can - and I do hope I have got this right and am prepared to be corrected - somehow 'add' to that work. I'm sure there's far more to it than that, but I am firmly in the camp that each and every 'work of art' (and Lord how I loathe that phrase for being woolly and vacuous) should stand and fall on its own intrinsic merits, that everything needed to 'understand' what it was intended to be conveyed is given, that no more should be needed. Certainly, I must admit, that subsequently coming across certain biographical details can somehow enhance our experience. But my point is that such an enhancement is a bonus.

6 There are 1,001 different kinds of novel, painting, pieces of music or whatever it is you are producing and there will be 1,001 different kinds of people who will appreciate some but not others. So, my warning about farts and self-love notwithstanding (and unless, of course, you are simply writing like a journeyman and being hired to produce a certain something), it would seem obvious to me that you should first and foremost write for yourself. If others are also interested, all well and good. But don't go about trying to please others. Not only will you most probably produce pretty mediocre work, but the chances are you won't even impress those you are hoping to impress.
I've run out of steam on this one and if I carry on, I shall merely be wasting your time as well as mine. But there is one last thing I should like to advocate:

7 Learn to touch-type. First of all it is not half as difficult as you might think and you don't have to reach a particular level. PAs and secretaries might be expected to reach a touch-typing speed of whatever is the norm - 100 words a minute - but you don't. Forty words a minute or even slower is perfectly adequate. But what you will gain is the ability to write as you think. If, like me for years and years (and like almost all the hacks I know) you use the two, three or four-finger system, you are interrrupting your train of thought several times every few seconds and suffering because of it. The chances are that you will type in such manner, make quite a few mistakes and go back and correct them before you carry on. Or, like me, you will carry on regardless and then go back once you feel you have finished to correct all those mistakes. That is not only excessively boring, but the chances are that you will start re-writing what you have written and ensure that what was more or less a coherent train of thought becomes anything but. That's what happened to me, but a few years ago I bought the Mavis Beacon touch typing program and taught myself and the benefit is enormous.

8 Perhaps I should restate my first point and expand on it a little: quite apart from what you write not having to be perfect from the off, don't take on too much in one session. It only gets worse. Set yourself a target, reach it, then get up and do something entirely different for at least a few hours, but preferably a day. You will then come back to what you have written and see it with a far clearer, far more objective eye. So you revise it and try to improve it, discarding, more often than not, those bits you first thought were quite magnificent because in a rather colder light they are nothing of the kind.

Oh, and I have only written a few short stories over the years, two short novels and one what would be called a novella. Of those I will only stand by the second novel as - perhaps - getting there. Everything I wrote before then was, I'm sure, shite, because I had no idea what I was doing or even wanted to do.

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