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Your “Back-to-the-Grind” Reward

Hello Saturday! That first full week back to work after vacation — Christmas or otherwise — is always a bit of drag, eh?

But you’ve made it through, so here’s a little YouTube treat to start your weekend. Before you head to the gym that is. ‘Cuz it’s that time of year, innit?

 

 

(Nota bene: If you’re already familiar with Adele’s Hello, jump right in and give this a watch. If not, as funny as it probably is on its own, it’s going to be exponentially funnier if you familiarize yourself with the original Adele version first — so off you go!)

You’re welcome!

On the kindness and, one hopes, the prescience of one’s early readers

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Every time I lock myself in this room and try to put something to paper, my mind reels.

Why? Why do I do this to myself?

Why the hell, after an exhausting day in the salt mines of [insert your day job here], do I come home and seek to force myself on the page?

When it’s sunny outside. Or when I should be playing video games and bonding with my teenaged son. Or finishing the floor tile in back hall that I started last year.

If you’re a writer, you already know why. You’ll also have your own very personal reasons, of course, but, ultimately, it’s a compulsion thing. You can’t help yourself. It’s kind of like masturb . . . uhmm . . . I mean, like when you open that big bag of potato chips promising to only eat one. Maybe two or three, tops. And then proceed to eat the who bag. You simply can’t stop. The only thing harder than writing — and this only goes to prove the universe’s twisted sense of irony — is not writing.

What makes it all worthwhile though, and I suppose this is probably true for any endeavour, are those little bursts of joy we get when stuff actually works out to our satisfaction. Like Hannibal from the A-Team: “I love it when a plan comes together!” And for writers there’s that extra little jolt of accomplishment that comes when, every now and then, we learn that we have actually made some sort of connection with our readers. That we’ve gained another “Follower” on our blog or won a story competition or had something published — all things contingent upon there being actual human beings on the other end of our words with whom we’ve somehow made a connection.

It’s surprising how minuscule such tidbits of positive feedback can be and still provide huge spurts of motivation. Even over relatively long periods of time, and especially for those of us writers who don’t yet, and very well may never have, an honest-to-goodness “fan base.”

I remember my first job out of university. I worked for a PR and advertising firm and spent the better part of a year organizing a national conference for a large professional association. During the conference itself I barely slept for about 72 hours. The day after it was over I returned to my desk to find a cream-coloured envelope there with my name on it. Inside the envelope was a crisp $100 bill and a handwritten note from the company president thanking me for my diligence in putting together such a successful event. Before then I barely had the sense that the president even knew who I was, but everything about that card was just right. It was immediate enough after the event that there was no way it could be construed as an afterthought. It contained cash, rather than a company cheque, which further personalized the monetary token — and it was a nice crisp $100 at that, obviously not something he had simply reached into his pocket and pulled out. And the amount, while not staggering, wasn’t a pittance (at least to me) — it was just enough to show gratitude without being vulgar. He had made — to my mind — an authentic connection with me. After that, I would have done almost anything for the guy.

But when writers get positive feedback from a reader, — when someone’s actually crawled into your psyche and experienced your words along with you, and is able to communicate to you that they have gained something by the experience — now there’s a rush! And you hoard these experiences as a bulwark against the bleakness of the daily writing grind. Squirreling them away to be re-ingested at 2am sittings when you’re on the fifth edit of a particularly troublesome piece of crap that has you considering ditching writing altogether in favour of doing something a little less painful like, maybe, gouging your eyeballs out with a butter knife.

Yet this unique behavioural feedback loop only really works if those folks from whom you’re receiving praise don’t have some previous vested interest in your success. Thumbs up from Mom does’t count — she’s a ringer. And spouses are doubly problematic. Part of them wants to be your champion no matter what you undertake. The other part, however, may very well want to scream at you to stop wasting your time playing make believe and actually finish the tiling in the back hall. Both, I would argue, are equally valid responses. And, with this insight, it may often be better to simply leave this particular keg untapped when you’re looking for reassurance of your emerging, literary genius.

Of course there are always exceptions to the spousal rule. A friend from my writing group, for example, earned some high praise from his wife indeed, after the performance of a play he had written a few years ago, when she informed him, “I thought it was great. By the end I had completely forgotten you had written it.” Okay, maybe a little bit backhanded, but still on the positive side of the ledger nonetheless. (Another friend of mine offered a similar “compliment” on my short story, “Anhalter,” that I posted last month: “Oh, that was yours? I thought it was just a story you stumbled upon by someone else and posted it to your blog ‘cause you thought it was interesting. I liked it. It’s didn’t sound anything like your usual stuff.” Uhmm, thanks. I think.)

But the real breakthroughs come when disinterested (or, at least, mostly disinterested) third parties are able to “pick up what you’re putting down.” Sometimes they’re even able to discern what you’ve done better than you are yourself. I remember when I originally read “Saturday Afternoon” (which I posted here last week) to my writing group. I was a little worried because the several friends I had shown it to previously were completely confounded by it: “Uhmm, it’s . . . good? I had to read it a couple of times. I’m not quite sure I get it. There was a plane crash, right?” But one of my writing group colleagues immediately exposed something I didn’t even understand — consciously — about the piece until she mentioned it: “I like it. Engaging imagery. It’s really more like poetry, this story, isn’t it.” YES! YES! That was it! The imagery, the cadence of the climactic paragraph reeling and arching with the rhythm of the poor, pre-destined pinball. Someone “Got it!” and, in doing so, had even helped me to see my own work more clearly. This insight kept me writing for a least another six months.

Then, last year, I sat down and wrote the first chapter of a novel that had suddenly taken up residence in my mind. I had seen it as a vision: The literary love child of Ian McEwan’s Saturday and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. (Yes, more vampires, but not really. Trust me!) I’m enthralled with this first chapter. I think it’s evocative and atmospheric and richly character driven. Somehow I haven’t had the time and / or energy to block out the rest of the book yet, but I know it’s going to be a winner if I’m ever able to — stop blogging long enough to — get back to it.

I think they liked it at writers’ group, but I recently got some first-hand reader feedback from the sister of a friend of mine to whom I had e-mailed an e-pub copy so she could read on her i-Pad:

OH MY STARS !!! When I got to the part where he thought Gretel was skinning a baby I almost passed out. Your description made it feel like I was standing in the kitchen and I had goosebumps . . . . I need more of that story.

I’m all subscribed and am getting your blogs.

Keep that shit up. It’s good stuff and I enjoy reading it.

Manna from heaven!

And a ringing enough endorsement that I imagine I’ll be “keeping this shit up” for the foreseeable future. Or at least until someone trips over the edge of the hardwood transition in the back hall and I simply can’t put off finishing the floor tile any longer.

Photo credit: University of Warwick (http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/al/learning_english/leap/reading/)

Art, Ian McEwan, and Me, Blogging

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Ian McEwan. Photo Credit: Annalena McAfee

I think Ian McEwan is one of the most important and interesting voices in contemporary English-language fiction.

As with many others, I imagine, Atonement was the first book of McEwan’s that I stumbled upon. I remember being hugely impressed with the quality of the writing that introduced us to one of the main characters — a child at the time — and her cultural environs at the start of the book. Then, later in the book, the visceral agony of the wrong letter being sent (c-word and all) to a dreamed-of lover, the inversion plot whose consequences would ultimately drive the remainder of the story.

Next I read On Chesil Beach, which I remember for both the crystalline quality of the writing (again) and McEwan’s uncanny ability to immerse us so completely — and often uncomfortably — in the banalities of 1960’s England. But more than anything, what I remember from this book was the sort of awakening I had when I realized that McEwan was such a good writer that I hadn’t even noticed it had taken one of his characters something like six pages simply to complete the action of crossing a room. I didn’t notice because I was seamlessly caught up in this character’s stream of consciousness the whole time, thinking with his brain, as the saying goes. Time and time again, it seems, McEwan shows us what it is really like to be “lost in a good book”.

Then came Saturday, which I think, so far, is my favorite. Then Solar, with our Falstaffian anti-hero awash in the angst of lost potential, that sickness that overtakes all of us who manage to outlive our 20’s.

Over this year’s Christmas break I finished Sweet Tooth, McEwan’s latest book, also with a 1960’s / 70’s English backdrop. This time, loosely, something of a low-level spy thriller, but mostly a brilliantly rendered period piece and a further experiment with narrative voice and fictional conventions.

Finally, this week, I read Amsterdam, McEwan’s 1998 Booker Prize winner. As usual, the characters are neatly and ironically drawn and we end up inhabiting their thoughts to such a degree that it’s almost impossible to get out of their way. In this book, as well, I especially enjoyed the somewhat tangential examination of how, under just the right conditions, creativity may coalesce into artistic expression.

When I sat down to write about Amsterdam this morning, however, the first thing I did was a Google search to find a photo of McEwan to use in this posting. That took me to his Wikipedia entry, then suddenly I was at the Paris Review website (http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/393/the-art-of-fiction-no-173-ian-mcewan), and, well, it quickly became apparent to me that my old instincts were taking over — I was suddenly doing a research project, instead of writing a blog. What I was now poised to do was read everything I could get my hands on regarding Mr. McEwan, least I misstep myself in any way in seeking to write about him. Being such a perfectionist, however, has been the death knell to so many of my projects and, I’m certain, lies at the heart of my ongoing procrastination habit: see https://philipjefferson.wordpress.com/2013/02/03/on-writing-2/. Quite often, by the time I complete the data gathering component of a project, I’ve simply lost interest in it: the moment — the moment that held that original, shiny spark of inspiration or insight — has passed. So this morning, let’s damn the torpedoes. Let’s rip into McEwan with nary a whit of background other than our admiration for the man’s work and a cup of cappuccino.

One of the primary story lines in Amsterdam is that of Clive Linley, a world-renowned English composer, who is working on a national commission to write an epic millennial symphony (remember, it’s 1998). We spend a great deal of time in Clive’s head thinking about how the symphony is developing and how creativity — musical and otherwise — ultimately generates artistry.

Having taken the symphony as far as he can within the confines of his rambling London home, he knows that he will only be able to start to discern the outlines of the elusive climax to the piece by setting it aside for the moment, looking away from it so that his subconscious can take over and start its own mysterious creative process (what Stephen King, in a similar fashion in his novel Bag of Bones, refers to as the job of “the boys in the basement”). Linley is reasonably certain, from past experience, that a short walking holiday in the Lake District will free his mind and body sufficiently to allow the climax to the piece to begin to coalesce, independent of his conscious desire to have it do so. Having quarreled with a friend before he left London, however, Linley finds that getting into his “groove” out in the rugged countryside isn’t working as well as it should to kickstart the creative process:

“The open spaces that were meant to belittle his cares, were belittling everything: endeavour seemed pointless. Symphonies [read “Writing” here if you’re a scribbler] especially: feeble blasts, bombasts, doomed attempts to build a mountain in sound [or words]. Passionate striving. And for what? Money. Respect. Immortality [interesting that McEwan doesn’t present these items as interrogatives]. A way of denying the randomness that spawned us, and of holding off the fear of death.”

Arguably, these are the shaky foundations upon which all art — Art— is built. How do you push yourself beyond the apparent “pointlessness” of any intellectual exercise? This question, which I ask myself on a nearly continually basis as I spend my nights and weekend banging away at this keyboard, always puts me in mind of the problem of Schrödinger’s Cat. Inside an opaque box is a cat, a vial of poison (with an atomic trigger) and a bit of radioactive source material. And the fact of the matter, given the nuances of quantum physics under which our universe operates, is that we must consider the cat to be alive and dead at the same time. (No, really: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schrödinger’s_cat). Similarly, we all know that art truly matters in the world, but, then again, if we’re really honest with ourselves, it matters not a whit. This is the essential ouroboros nature of creativity. The only way we can know for sure whether or not art really matters is to lift the lid off the box and see for ourselves whether it’s alive or dead. But that would be cheating — and we can’t figure out how to open the damn thing anyway! Round and round we go…

Nor can we typically sustain such high-flying philosophical ideas for any significant length of time. As McEwan recognizes, and exposes so deftly,  — and this is why I so enjoy reading his books — life goes on, regardless. After his hillside epiphany regarding the implications of the creative process, for example, “[Linley] stopped to tighten his bootlaces. Further on he took off his sweater, and drank deeply from his water bottle, trying to eradicate the taste of the kipper he had unwisely eaten at breakfast. Then he found himself yawning, and thinking of the bed in his small room.”

It is within these evocative segues from the sublime to the mundane, from “headspace” to indigestion, amidst the elaborate pattern language of self-delusion and inconsistency, that McEwan lays bare the plight of the modern, human animal. The skill with which he is able to establish and develop his characters, within the larger constraints of their individual familial, cultural and historical milieus continues to make him, for my money, one of the top English-speaking writers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Not infrequently, however, McEwan’s incisiveness often exposes our own shortcomings and mediocracies. How does the senior staff at The Judge, the newspaper at the heart of Amsterdam, for example, propose to re-gain readership that has fallen off in the face of their continued stolid and (supposedly) old-fashioned approach to the news?:

“It’s time we ran more regular columns. They’re cheap and everyone else is doing them. You know, we hire someone of low to medium intelligence, possibly female, to write about, well, nothing much. You’ve seen the sort of thing. Goes to a party and can’t remember someone’s name. Twelve hundred words.

‘Sort of navel gazing,’ Jeremy Ball suggested.

‘Not quite. Gazing is too intellectual. More like navel chat.’

‘Can’t work her video recorder. Is my bum too big?’ Lettice supplied helpfully.

‘That’s good. Keep ‘em coming.’ The editor wiggled and paddled his fingers in the air to draw out their ideas.”

Guess I’m busted. Blog anyone?