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Road Trippin’: Shiny Pearls of Wisdom from My Inaugural Autumn Writing Retreat

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Retreat Headquarters (© Philip Jefferson)

 

OK, so my long-anticipated, self-initiated, inaugural writing retreat is now little more than a blur in the proverbial rearview mirror of my life. And, like most things one spends too much time thinking about in advance, it was, and was not, exactly what I thought it would be. So what’s the take-away?

 

“Everybody has a plan — until they get punched in the face!” (It’s not often that Mike Tyson “out-quotes” a former US president, but I find the aforementioned snippet far pithier that Dwight Eisenhower’s rather more prosaic WWII-era version: “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”) The main worry I was grappling with in my pre-retreat blog was that by seeking to maximize what I hoped to get out of the weekend — either creatively or socially — I might actually “plan the life out of it.” Well, I’m glad to say that I didn’t. True, I knew how I wanted the days to unfold — how I had calculated I could eek the most productivity out of the limited time I had before me — but once I felt that first fist against my jaw (in Tyson parlance), I’m proud to say I just let things unfold as they presented themselves. I knew there existed an overarching structural “plan” lingering in the shadows that I could revert to if required, but, instead, I simply sought to channel my inner Zen-novice and “relax into things.” Relaxing, of course, is anathema to word count. But it was an incredible autumn weekend and we had a lot of fun out and about at the farmer’s market and local wine festival. And ate waaaay to much!

 

I’m pretty much toast — intellectually — by the end of the work week. Those of you who are regular visitors here at the Gooseyard know that I’m something of a “fanboy” when it comes to the writer Ian McEwan. The one exception is an interview I once saw with him where he pontificated — rather flippantly in my opinion — that you simply can’t write serious fiction if you haven’t managed to divest yourself of a full-time “day job.” I think part of the reason I was so incensed at this “literary pronouncement from on high” was that, deep down, I rather suspect he’s right. It’s damn near impossible to find the gumption to knock out a few thousand decent words a night when you’ve spent the bulk of the day toiling in the salt-mines of [insert your job here]. (OK, yes, yes, shut up, I know, if I were truly committed I’d get up an hour earlier every day and get my writing done then, or get divorced and move into a studio apartment or something, but that’s a different blog altogether). And as hard as it is to discipline oneself to sit down and write something worthwhile after a single day at the office, I find it damn near impossible to write — or do anything else requiring any conscious level of dexterity for that matter — on a Friday night, after having logged five over-busy work days in a row. Maybe it’s a symptom of middle-age, but lately my ideal Friday evening seems comprised mainly of seeking to achieve a kind of languid, Netflix-induced somnolent trance, my eyelids drooping somewhere south of wakefulness, my belly full, a liquid intoxicant of some description at hand, and the hum of the laundry tossing itself clean in the washer in the near distance. [Aside to Millennials: See what you have to look forward to when you grow up?] So even though my retreat-mates and I made sure to take Friday off to give ourselves a full, three-day session at the cottage, the limited amount of writing I was able to convince myself to do that Friday afternoon — after my nap — was still a bit of a slog. And the evening, as usual, found us simply relaxing with a movie (though, in our defence, it was, at least, a book-related movie).

 

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Things suffer when you make them serve too many purposes at once. Remember those K-Tel ads for that ultimate, multi-purpose kitchen gadget: “It slices, it dices, it juliennes!” Well, sometimes — usually quite often, in fact — we end up over-burdening the things in our lives by trying to make them serve too many disparate purposes at one time. And thus overburdened they don’t end up serving their primary purpose(s) anywhere near as well as they should. The Porche Cayenne you bought, because you wanted a sports car, but still needed enough room to schlep the kids to school and pick up the groceries, is not going to perform like the 911 you always dreamed of. The writers’ retreat was no different. Because it was also a couple’s retreat. And a fall getaway. And a food fest. Which are all valid reasons to get in the car and go somewhere. But the more you load up something with the requirements for it to be something else at the same time, the less well it is going to perform in any of its expected roles.

 

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[Greta and] “I want to be left alone.”  The more I write, the more I realize that I need real solitude to do so. What Virginia Woolf referred to — though admittedly her focus at the time was on women writers — as a “room of one’s own.” This metaphoric room, as any writer will tell you, represents far more than a simple, physical space, however. It is, rather, the all-encompassing “realm” in which the writer most effectively undertakes his or her work. Every “realm” is different. In my case, I need three things to hit the “zone” running: a sufficient expanse of free time in front of me to get started and maintain some reasonable momentum; complete physical separation from other people (except, occasionally when I make the conscious decision to attempt some writing in a cafe or library); and a reasonably-sized window to look out of (preferably across a natural vista of some sort). Or to put it another way, and with a nod to Corinthians 13:13, “And now abideth time, landscape and solitude; but the greatest of these is solitude.” In a way — and this isn’t an original analogy, though it is one I’ve argued before in one form or another — writing is a lot like masturbation: it’s not something that’s particularly easy to undertake when there are other folks in the room (even if it is just your wife and a couple of really good friends). The retreat certainly gave me time to write, and we definitely had an incredible view across the Northumberland shore line from the cottage’s dining room window, but it seems I really need to be alone to truly hit my writerly stride. With all due respect to Meatloaf, two outta three may not be bad, but it’s not going to generate a proliferation of prose on my part.

 

So, what’s the final verdict? Would I do it again? Definitely — in fact I hope to do it agin next year. Did I achieve the purported goals outlined in the last paragraph of my pre-retreat blog? Let’s review.

 

Enjoy some fall foliage? Check.

 

Have a couple of drinks and share a few laughs with friends? Check, and double check!

 

Produce a half a dozen pages of decent prose? Umm, not so much. Maybe three. Though they weren’t bad. (And we had a really invigorating discussion Sunday morning about using dialogue to advance one’s story — as opposed to a rambling interior monologue approach which, I’m sure, will eventually be my literary downfall.)

 

Next year, however, I’m going to take a page out of Bridget Jone’s diary and simply refer to whatever autumn excursion we decide to undertake as a “mini-break.” If I happen to get some writing done, great. If not, that’s OK too. And part of the reason that it will be OK is that I’ve decided to plan a true Writers’ Retreat before then. I imagine it will involve a locked door, a small room and a big window. I’ll keep you posted.

 

P.S. What are your “must-haves” when it comes to the creative endeavours you undertake? I’d love to hear from you.

On Returning to Writers’ Group

Photo credit: Skakerman via photopin cc

Photo credit: Skakerman via photopin cc

Hi. My name’s Philip and, apparently, I’m an addict.

Turns out, try as I might to neutralize it, I’m addicted to words. And sentences. And paragraphs. To grammar. And stories. And books. Glorious books! And thus I’m back with you today — as Tom and Pam and Charles may have already known I would be. Eventually.

George Orwell reminisces that he knew from the age of five or six that he was going to be a writer, though he qualifies this certainty with the recognition that “[b]etween the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.”

I, likewise, seem to find myself  “outraging my true nature” on an almost daily basis as I — consciously or otherwise — scheme to try to keep the siren call of the keyboard at bay. ‘Cuz I’m already busy enough with work. And with family. With trying to keep the house clean, and pay the bills, and plan for this summer’s vacation. Yet the more I try to quash these impulses to compose, the more they coalesce — fester, really — below the surface, gaining ground on me even as I struggle to keep them in check.

It hurts to write — at least to try to write well. It’s a difficult, solitary, alienating process, and not for the faint of heart. But it hurts me more, though in a very different way, not to write. As with the protagonist of the very first short story I wrote for Writers’ Group who simply can’t keep the supple iconography of a once-glimpsed adolescent bathing beauty out of his mid-life noggin, eventually such suppressed agony will always find its way to the light:

“It is this crescendo of images [of the young, scantily-clad teenager] that he fears most. They would come upon him without warning, overpower him and leave him nearly spent, exhausted from trying to keep them at bay, but, as on the very day itself, unable to look away, unable to disentangle himself from the misery that the images would eventually leave draped around him. In the midst of the memory, which he now suffers with alarming regularity, he feels fragile, barely capable of controlling himself. He feels encumbered by some sort of toxic, sexual Tourette’s, anticipating the twitching and sputtering and pornographic language of his obsession that he imagines at any minute must surely come pouring from him like rancid, projectile vomit, leaving him shaking and used up and alone, with nothing left to him but his own strangely muddled desires and humiliation.”

How’s that for a creative call to arms?

It is with a similar, nearly debilitating anxiety, that I continually find myself stringing words together. Not because I want to, you understand, but because — as much as it hurts and as much effort as it requires — it ultimately does me less psychic damage to write than not to write. And yet as true as this may be, even this is only true up to a point. Because that’s what writing is as well — a shifting quicksand of ideas and perspectives where we cling to certainty at our peril.

“Art is a lie that let’s us realize truth,” posits Picasso.  And this is certainly as valid for writing as it is for painting. Perhaps even more so where “stories” are concerned. Still, the fact that fiction isn’t “real” has always been something of a sticking point with me as well. What kind of a person freely chooses to spend huge swaths of his limited lifetime in the netherworld of make believe at the expense of his actual human existence? With his literal head — or, more explicitly, perhaps, the imaginative capacity of his mind — stuck up his proverbial arse?

I guess there’s “truth” and then there’s “Truth.” The former is rather more straight-forward than the latter. It’s the brick wall that you walk into when you’re not paying attention to where you’re going. Or the 9-to-5 work you do on a daily basis without really thinking about it. It’s the place where you simply “act” and “re-act” to whatever your life throws at you. A place where “being” is only as valid as the natural laws — physical, chemical, biological — that constrain such a reality.

Creatively, however, as writers we’re after something far more elusive than the simple interplay of physics and chemistry and biology. What we’re after, I would argue, is no less than “Truth” itself. That’s the value the writer brings to the table. What is it to live? To love? To dream? To suffer? To exist as a human being? A real-word response to these questions only gets us so far. On the other hand, what the artist seeks to expose, I believe, is the Platonic ideal that animates the very essence of an issue, the existence-ness of existence that unites us in ways that our mere bodies simply cannot. The once and always, perpetually elusive, physically transcendent, “heart of the matter.”

Why do I write? To lance some some sort of intellectual, creative boil that continues to arise within me unbidden. Ultimately, I suppose, it’s all a mind trick. Everything’s a mind trick. These are not the droids you’re looking for.

Or are they?

(Written on the occasion of my return to my local Writers’ Group earlier this year after an eight month absence.)

On the vagaries of what can only be deduced as an elaborate plot by WordPress to limit traffic to my blog

Photo credit: comedy_nose via photopin cc

Photo credit: comedy_nose via photopin cc

Reader Advisory: The blog contains graphic scenes of whinging and whining and may not be appropriate for all audiences. Viewer discretion is advised.

Dear WordPress,

I think you’re broken. You may want to try a level-three diagnostic or a hard re-boot or something. I mean I haven’t seen anything in the media yet about your “little problem” but it’s apparent —  to me at least — that you’re obviously not quite firing on all cylinders.

I know this must be the case because none of my recent posts have generated any new traffic to my site. No shower of new “Likes” or thoughtful messages left for me to review and respond to in the comments section. And new “Followers” are barely trickling in in dribs and drabs, if at all. (In fact I’m now certain WordPress must have recently hit a serious software glitch: I’m not even getting those goddamned make-money-blogging-on-line marketing types “Liking” / “Following” my site any more!)

I mean, I appreciate the fact that the limited bandwidth you have available via the internet probably doesn’t have the capacity to let everybody who’s out there clamouring to get through to my site arrive here all at once. But that doesn’t mean you have to shut off the spigot altogether! I’m sure if you reviewed the dilemma with your IT department one of your techies could come up with a compromise solution that might, at the very least, let several thousand of my would-be readers through at a time.

Think about it. How can I not help but conclude that there’s a deep-rooted systems problem on your end? After all, there’s a ton of crap blogs of “questionable literary merit” out there presently overflowing with comments and gaining followers at an exponential rate. So it only stands to reason that there must be a technical issue with my particular account that is currently rendering it traffic-less for some reason.

I know my stuff is often a little wordy. A little dense. Maybe even a little inaccessible on occasion. But I’m confident that could have nothing to do with the recent dearth of visitors to The Gooseyard. Sure, my sentences, at times, may get lengthy and parenthetical, but they still hold together internally and, if one pays particular attention to the form and the rhythm of their inherent structure — which is maybe a little more challenging in these days of tweet-sized ideas and communications — there comes a significant payoff upon arrival at the end of such a sentence knowing that you’ve stuck with it and teased out its central thesis with no other tools than your own pulsing grey matter and predisposition to appreciate a complex array of thoughts and intuitions interpreted through the skein of another person’s consciousness and presented in more than 140 thumb-punched characters. It can’t all be just cat videos, on-line psychotherapy and lollipops. There are clever, thoughtful people out there who can handle my kind of depth. I know there are because I sign up as a “Follower” on their blogs whenever I happen to stumble upon them. All four of them.

Or perhaps the folks at WordPress have simply taken some of my posts to heart and are so worried that — as I have often bemoaned — my other creative writing has suffered as a result of all the time I now spend on my blog, that they have decided to save me from myself by not letting anybody through to my site. While I appreciate the intervention guys, — I truly do, it’s a wonderful feeling knowing my friends at WordPress are out there trying to do right by me and help me get that first novel written — I really have to work through this one on my own. Let the readers back through to my site and after I get “Freshly Pressed” a half a dozen times my work here will be done and, no doubt, I’ll probably migrate naturally back to my novel.

I do hope we can find resolution on this issue — maybe even with this very post! Please don’t make me go public with this.

Best regards,

Philster999 (for The Gooseyard) 

dot-dot-dot dash-dash-dash dot-dot-dot; Or, the Allure of the Other

Photo credit: Peter Gorges via photopin cc

Photo credit: Peter Gorges via photopin cc

For anyone out there who either doesn’t have a military background, or isn’t over 40, the above-noted string of dots and dashes is Morse Code for “SOS”. For the purposes of this blog, however, this is not a reference to the traditional “Save Our Souls” distress call — at least not directly. Today, at The Gooseyard, it refers, instead, to “Shiny Object Syndrome,” a recent variation of the acronym I stumbled upon the other day that finally assigns a pithy mnemonic to my super hero-like ability to start about 87 new projects in the run of day, but seldom to finish a single one of them.

Last night’s foray into SOS territory was in pursuit of the new on-line writing game, Storium. The game’s in beta testing so I figured I’d drop by their site for few minutes, check out what was being written and how it worked, and maybe quickly submit a character of my own to one of the emerging stories. Four hours later I pulled my sorry, end-of-the-week carcass away from the computer and off to bed, having spent the entire evening not only creating and submitting a richly-developed, emotionally-conflicted Ranger-like character, christened Alswulff Glenn, for a “fantasy-type” story that was just getting underway, but also having set myself up as the narrator for my own “Occult Pulp Horror” themed tale which I’ve entitled Arcanus Rising. (Hey, don’t give me that look — the genres are pretty much pre-set and at least I had enough self control to not start developing my own unique story-line(s) from scratch! Give me some credit.)

Yep, just what I need (NOT!) — two more writing projects to work on! And, since those of us with chronic (terminal?) SOS like to spread our contagion like wildfire throughout the community, I figured I’d better invite one of my pals along to Storium to give me a hand. I mean, sure, he’s trying to get that YA book of his tweaked and edited for release this fall, but he’s still probably in need of a little shiny, writerly distraction as well, right? (Sorry Tom.)

And thus expired my Friday night, which should have been spent working on the weekly laundry, prepping for my writing group meeting today (sorry Jim), and fleshing out a couple of outlines for this week’s blogs. Yeah, blogsplural. ‘Cause, hell, two blogs are shinier than one, right? And I really wanted to try out that new “Coco” theme from WordPress…. And why not hitch that second blog to yet another new project — Project One for the Win, where I slowly turn my modest country bungalow from a cluttered family home into a clean-lined, minimalist Nirvana. ‘Cause, hey, a guy needs projects, right? Right? Are we beginning to see a pattern emerge here?

My life— AKA my addiction to the “new”, to anything other than what I happen to be stuck doing at the moment — often reminds me of one of those old Family Circus cartoons. You know, where Billy or PJ, or whoever the hell the young son was, is sent to the kitchen to fetch the scissors for his mother and then we watch that thick dashed line trace his progress on this quest over the course of the cartoon. Starting from the hallway, just before making it to the kitchen, where he gets distracted by a butterfly and climbs out an open window to follow it into the yard. Then, while he’s chasing the butterfly around outside, he sees a low-slung sports car drive by that he decides is exactly the car he wants to own when he grows up, so back inside he goes, down to the family computer station in the basement, to research his coveted future vehicle.

While on-line reviewing car payment schedules he finds himself suddenly re-directed to a mortgage amortization web site and decides he can probably now negotiate a better rate on his own mortgage given the recent dip in rates. And, considering just how low the rates actually are, maybe he’d be better off doing those kitchen renovations he’s been promising his wife this year, rather than delaying it any longer. But if he’s going to do the renovations, he should probably download some nice shiny new 3D kitchen design software to get him started. Which means he should probably back-up his computer first, but his old external hard drive is full so he probably needs a new one, and Future Shop is having a sale, and I should pick up Thief for Xbox while I’m there, and where did I put my car keys?

“Where’re the goddamned scissors I asked for,” screams your wife PJ’s mother from the top of the basement stairs….

Ahoy! The SS Gooseyard is going down! dot-dot-dot dash-dash-dash dot-dot-dot….

My Writing “Problem”

Photo credit: Nanagyei via photopin cc

Photo credit: Nanagyei via photopin cc

I suppose the impending apology / explanation for my near seven-month absence from The Gooseyard isn’t going to write itself, so I might as well get it out of the way once and for all. In fact, I’ve already broached it somewhat over at my “de-clutter” blog, Project One for the Win:

The truth is I took a little break from writing, which turned into a long break from writing. Like most of us who write, I have a bit of a love / hate relationship with the process and I suppose the pendulum has been swinging along the “hate” arc of late. Well, maybe not “hate” exactly, but sometimes you feel like you’re just not getting a sufficient return on your authorial investment. Y’know?

You just get weary sometimes. You’re sure you have a book — or two or three or eleven — in you (which, in fact, you should probably be working on now instead of continually feeding the thankless, insatiable blogosphere). And you know you’d have the will-power / confidence / energy to complete these literary masterpieces if only you had the luxury of being a full-time writer. But you’re already a full-time something else, and, in many cases, a full-time parent (or some other type of care-giver), housekeeper, Man / Woman Friday, etc., as well. Time — or, more accurately, perhaps, the lack of energy associated with having to expend so much time elsewhere — is your nemesis. But time itself? Well, as the irreverent, onanistically-minded Chuck Wendig points out in a recent post, Stupid Answers to Common Writing Questions, time doesn’t much give a shit:

How do I find the time to write? You do not find the time to write. You make it. You snatch it from the jaws of whatever temporal beast has your minutes and hours clamped between its gnarly teeth. We all fight for our time, whether it’s time for a meal, time for a TV show, time to mow the lawn, time to masturbate wantonly on the neighbor’s front porch so that their cat can watch you from the family room window. Time is not a lost set of car keys. It’s not extra money you find in a pants pocket just before you wash them. Time is a thing for which you fight. And if you want to write, you need to fight for the time to accomplish that task. Because time doesn’t care about you. It keeps on keeping on until you’re mulch for the fucking marigolds. Seize it. Or don’t. It doesn’t care.

Still, I would argue, time is only a symptom of the larger problem. More than time, what a writer really needs (OK, what I really need, ‘cause, if you haven’t figured it out by now, these blogs are really all about me) is discipline. Time can’t generate discipline after all, but discipline can generate time. And here I find myself wishing for the millionth time that I could actually muster enough discipline to write, instead of simply writing about writing. But at least I recognize I’m falling short. That’s a start, right?

Writing’s easy (it’s just putting words together). So is dieting (eating fewer calories than you expend). And quitting smoking (not lighting up). And staying out of debt (spending less than you earn). None of this — intellectually, computationally — is rocket science. It’s straight-forward action / reaction stuff. The difficult part of the process — and this is what keeps the self-help industry raking in obscene amounts of money year after year — isn’t in acquiring the knowledge of what has to be done, but exerting the will-power and discipline to, well (sorry Nike), “Just do it.” But you can’t order discipline on-line from amazon.com. I checked.

I mean, c’mon. How many pity-the-poor-writer posts like this have I issued from The Gooseyard? Most? Probably. When it comes right down to it, I’m really not sure to what extent the Internet has actually succeeded in liberating aspiring writers. What I think it has done, instead, is give wannabe writers a forum in which to while away the hours writing about writing without actually following through on the type of original, creative projects they’ve always dreamed of pursuing. Then they — OK, “we” — dole out all this psuedo-writing (yes, just like I’m doing now — the irony is not lost on me!) to all the other non-writing writers clogging cyberspace, gaining just enough “Followers” and “Likes” along the way to keep us motivated to pen our next self-indulgent missive. Instant gratification. Why does the phrase “circle jerk” come to mind?

Yikes, that got a little dark, didn’t it? Sorry. I guess I probably need more “Followers” to bolster my fragile ego. Either that or I might actually have to start writing something other than a blog to get my fix — though that seems like waaaay more work. As usual, where writers — pseudo or otherwise — are concerned, Wendig strips the emperor bare:

Uh, hello, please to meet every writer ever. We’re all fucking headcases. We all hit a point in every piece of work where we hate it, hate ourselves, hate publishing, hate the very nature of words (“Marriage? What a stupid word what’s that goddamn little ‘i’ doing in there FUCK THIS HOO-HA LANGUAGE IS STUPID I QUIT”). We all bang our heads against our own presumed inadequacies and uncertainties. Writing and storytelling isn’t a math problem with a guaranteed solution. It’s threading a needle inside our heart with an invisible string strung with dreams and nightmares. We are afforded zero guarantees. [Failing Versus Quitting (Or, “Your Lack of Confidence Is Neither Interesting or Unique”)]

Two blogs in, after more than a half a year hiatus, and already I’m starting to implode. But I don’t think I’m necessarily being unfair. Do you?

Upcoming Flash Fiction

Poster: Chuck Wendig (terribleminds.com)

Poster: Chuck Wendig (terribleminds.com)

For all those of you I’ve lured here with the “Literary” reference in my “A (Mostly) Literary Blog” tagline, you’ll be pleased to know that I’ve decided to join this week’s Flash Fiction challenge over at Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds site (http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2013/03/01/flash-fiction-challenge-super-ultra-mega-game-of-aspects/). It’s a bit of a mash-up, but I suppose that’s the challenge, um, I mean, fun. I rolled the virtual dice and I’ll be writing a 2,000-word story using the following randomized parameters to guide me:

> Subgenre: Psychological Thriller

> Setting: The Zoo

> Conflict: Abduction

> Aspect to Include: A rare bird

> Theme: Chaos always trumps order

That last one, at least, is something I’ve had a bit of experience with!

I’ve got to upload my story by this Friday (March 8), so I’ll see you back here then.

Anyone want to join me in this arcane wordsmithing exercise? Let me know. And consider the gauntlet thrown…

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?

WIP Cream: Inexorable

This passage is from a short story, Inexorable, I’m working on for the 2013 Island Literary Awards. Stan — our hero? — is obsessed with recording how long it takes him to drive home every night. Why? You’ll have to read the story to find out.

“Stan was fascinated with the spreadsheet. Loved to watch it compound from day to day, month to month. Loved to trace the arcing progression of the data sets plotted against the x-axis chronology of his life. The geometry would grow tighter and tighter with each passing month, constrained by the finite size of the screen upon which he was able to view the entire graph at once. But the hidden essence of the data, the unyielding, undulating rhythm of what? — truth? Truth? — maintained its fluid, elaborate arabesque regardless of constraint.”

In for a penny…

Photo Credit: Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Creative Commons

(Note: This entry was first written in October 2012 when I was experimenting with an iWeb-formatted blog that didn’t quite leave the ground.)

OK, let me start by assuring you that I’m already aware I’m doing this bass-ackwards. Putting the cart before the proverbial horse. I have no idea if my puny literary output over the last couple of years represents any spark of viable life, or whether my aspirations — which continue to exceed my actual output by several decades — have already miscarried.

It would help if I could simply sit my ass down and stay focused long enough to actually write. I know I should be writing. Instead, here I am writing about writing. Those who can do, those who can’t. . .

Still, as limited as my success has been to date (i.e. none so far), I think I’ve absorbed enough to know that writing about writing isn’t really writing. Writing is writing. Writing about writing is only writing when you’ve met your word count for the day (week, year, etc.), otherwise it’s merely procrastination, a long slow descent toward a sort of creative onanism.

But while I may still be in the process of earning my spurs as a full-fledged writer, I am, at the heart of the very DNA that defines my presence in this world, — and like the majority of my authorial brethren, apprentices and masters alike — something of an expert when it comes to procrastination. Take this blog for instance. The only reason I’m even writing this blog — which I’ve now been working on for more than a week because as soon as I wrote the opening sentence it immediately gained “project” status and thus became “procrastinate-able” itself (*consults dictionary to no avail, shrugs, sets it aside and pauses for another drink*) — is because I need an entry for my new website. And why do I need a new website? Well, because — and here we start in earnest down the rabbit hole — everything I read about trying to gain leverage as a writer (reading being that other viral time-suck in my life that keeps me from finding time to write) informs me that I’ll need a “platform” for my new novel.

Ah, my novel. Well, it sounds cool to say out loud anyway. . .

So, given that I’ve already managed to generate an entire chapter thus far (there’s six months of my life I can never get back!), I figured maybe I’d just open up iWeb and see how difficult it might be to design myself a wee, writerly site to fiddle with. Well, unfortunately, it was easy enough (damn you Apple!) that I was soon dropping photos into it and tweaking layouts, and the next thing you know I had generated enough blog headings at the top of the page — everything from the “Environment” to something, I’m not quite sure what yet, entitled “The Ennui Project” — to keep a menagerie of typing monkeys busy for several generations.

The point, of course, which I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, is that had I simply stuck with continuing to work on my novel “project” I’d probably have a couple of more chapters written by now. I would have moved that much closer to actually needing a platform from which to launch the aforementioned literary epic in the first place.

Then again, maybe I should be looking on the bright side. This website thing is starting to look so onerous to maintain as an effective pseudo-commercial initiative (all the more so considering I don’t yet have a product to flog) that I’m already looking for a way to duck my responsibilities to it as well. Maybe, if I’m lucky, it might even drive me back into the arms of my novel!

And maybe, from my wife’s perspective, both the novel and the website will become such a chore that together they’ll drive me back into the arms of the dozen or so different home renovation projects I’ve started over the course of the last decade but have never quite managed to finish. Hope springs eternal. The more likely course of events, however, is that the exponential weight of all of it combined will simply set me on the road toward an entirely new, shiny, and as yet unsullied, project.

I think I’m done for tonight. I’m not completely happy with this post, but will I ever be? In another week? A month? I dunno. So I’m holding my nose and uploading it now. If you like it, great, there (might) be more to come. If you don’t, well I was never quite satisfied with it myself in the first place, was I?