On Writing. A memoir of the craft by Stephen King

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American writer Stephan King. “Nothing can live up to the memory of a good scare.”

Outside the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria in the centre of old Florence is the statue of David by Michelangelo. Actually it’s a statue of David by someone else. It’s a copy. The original is in the Galleria dell’Accademia not far away. Michelangelo’s David is truely remarkable but what is more revealing are the accompanying statues of slaves; unfinished statues. The figures seem to be emerging out of the stone; or to put it another way, they were always in the stone; Michelangelo just had to remove the marble from around them to reveal them in all their glory. Music is like that. The Clarinet Concerto always existed; Mozart just wrote it down so now it’s called Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Stories are like that too.

I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves … Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.

or, in other words; stories have always existed, writers just have to write them down as accurately as they can.

If you hear a writer say “…Oh, it just wrote itself, really,” this is what they are talking about without really understanding anything about it.

Plotting is way down on King’s list of what’s important. For him it’s narration – to move the story along; description – to create a sensory reality; and dialogue – to bring characters to life.

I’ve never plotted any more than I ‘d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible …. plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible … It’s clumsy, mechanical, anticreative. Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored. 

I’ve heard, and read, many times that Stephan King is a writer’s writer. It’s a good line, although I’m not sure what it means. I took it to mean that I should read him. I’ve been planning to but as his work is not my preferred type (hate the word ‘genre’) other books kept preempting my plan. And then this one came along: a Christmas gift from my sister.

King calls it a memoir, and it certainly is. His chapter on his early struggles – menial jobs – many rejections, a family to support – is particularly honest and heart-warming. Yet, his chapter on being an alcoholic is electric. Talk about ‘being honest.’ It’s an insider’s view, the view of an alcoholic looking out with all the denials, justifications, and excuses that are virtually the ‘brand’ of all alcoholics but while he’s being one, seem particularly applicable to him and him alone.

But the life story doesn’t take long and soon he’s into the advice: the reason for reading it. I was heartened to read that his first piece of wisdom is, if you want to write, you must read. Phew! Good. I do that. His next piece of advice was to wage war on adverbs, especially attributive adverbs in dialogue: he said dismissively, she blithely said. His argument against adverbs like these was particularly convincing. I got up and opened my computer to the writing I had done that day and erased all my attributive adverbs, well, most of them. I had to make a few other adjustments to follow his advice: it should be perfectly clear how a line of dialogue should be said from the words themselves and, of course, the accumulated tension, tone, and information. Don’t be scared of oft repeating, he said, she said.

All I ask is that you do as well as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.

And vocabulary? “As the whore said to the bashful sailor, ‘It ain’t how much you’ve got it’s how you use it.” And if you have to run to the thesaurus to find the right word, it’s probably not the right word. He quotes Earnest Hemingway to seal the point.

“He came to the river. The river was there.”

He’s equally honest and up-front about narrative, description, dialogue and a myriad of other implements from his literary toolbox. I am very happy to now know that I share his belief in dialogue as one of the best ways to built character. There are some writers who avoid dialogue. What a missed opportunity!

However, I was, at times, at a disadvantage reading this book because he often makes his point by referring, in detail, to his own work and decisions he had to make, and why. I have never read anything by King so I found these passages redundant. Not his fault, but mine.

For a new writer like me (I can’t use the adjective ‘young’ any more), who’s grappling with the second draft of a major work that at the moment is a broad, messy, and a wooly thing, reading King’s On Writing now is the most serendipitous and useful coincidence.

All writers, especially new ones, and most readers would get a lot out of his insights into the writing process, the hazards and joys of writing for a living, and the more profound elements of imagination, fiction making, and self-fulfilment.  Highly recommended.

-oOo-

I have a gripe with Mr King. He’s down on adverbs, but he’s also down on pronouns. And so he should be; he uses them so clumsily (Yes, I now its an adverb but its necessary here.)

Move too fast and you risk leaving the reader behind. either by confusing or wearing him/her out.

The phrase ‘him or her’ is bad enough, but ‘him/her’? Unforgivable! He uses ‘he and she’ and even ‘he/she’ – but thank god, not ‘s/he’!

This is one of the English language’s greatest failings: there is no gender-neutral singular pronoun. For centuries it has been common practice to use the masculine ‘he, him, and his’ to refer to both genders. Today, this is not acceptable. But, there is a solution. What’s wrong with using the gender-neutral plural pronoun? Nothing. This has been around for a few hundred years, from the 16th century in fact* (It’s also been a solution for Jane Austin, Bernard Shaw, and Barak Obama). Yes, it’s breaking a fundamental rule of subject-pronoun agreement which maybe a small problem for some but it fixes a much bigger problem. Hence King could’ve and should’ve written,

Move too fast and you risk leaving the reader behind. either by confusing or wearing them out.

Much simpler, easier, cleaner, and no confusion, despite the broken rule.

He neuer forsaketh any creature vnlesse they before haue forsaken them selues.

– J Fisher Wayes to Perfect Religion (before 1535)

You can find the Kindle edition, as well as other formats, here.

No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani

Translated by Omid Tofighian

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Omid Tofighian is Lecturer in Rhetoric and Composition in the School of Literature, Art, and Media and Honorary Research Associate in the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry at the University of Sydney.

Although Tofighian is the translator, he acknowledges over a dozen people involved in getting Boochani’s original text smuggled from Manus via WhatsApp and Facebook into his hands.

One aspect I was always conscious of was that Behrouz was writing in Farsi, not Kurdish. He was writing in the language of his oppressors, even though he is a fervent advocate of Kurdish culture, language and politics. And the book was being translated into the language of his torturers.

I saw this translation opportunity as a chance to contribute to history by documenting and somehow supporting the persecution of forgotten people; translation for me, like writing for Behrouz, is a duty to history and a strategy for positioning the issue of indefinite detention of refugees deep within Australia’s collective memory.

Janet Galbraith lic

The book is dedicated to Janet Galbraith who coordinates and facilitates the writing group Writing Through Fences, an organisation that collaborates with incarcerated refugees (or previously detained refugees) and amplifies and supports their writing and art.

 

____________________________________

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Kurdish-Australian writer and asylum seeker, Behrouz Boochani. Winner of the Non-Fiction Prize and the Victorian Prize for Literature at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, 2019. 

“In 2013, Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani was illegally detained on Manus Island.

He has been there ever since.”

Australian law would object strongly to the word ‘illegally’, international law may not.

On a truck bumping through the dense Javanese jungle on a dark and bumpy track heading to the beach, even asylum seekers aren’t immune to the hazards of public transport,

A loud, obnoxious and completely inconsiderate Kurdish guy forces everyone to breathe his cigarette smoke throughout the trip. He is accompanied by a gaunt wife, adult son, and another son, a little bastard. This kid has his mother’s physical features and his father’s character. He is so loud he torments the whole truck, treating everything as a joke, and annoying everyone with his impatient and disruptive manner. He even gets on the nerves of the smuggler, who yells at him.

Finally after much shouting, rudeness, and disrespect as the over-wrought passengers jostle for space, the rotting boat heads out to sea

like a heavily pregnant mare cantering carefully across a dark prairie of water,

where there isn’t enough room for everyone to sit or lie but those who can, sleep.

Even the normal physical boundaries between families has fallen apart. Men lie in the arms of another’s wife, children lie on the chests and bellies of strangers…the young Sri Lankan family, whose bond is maybe the strongest of all on board, has fallen apart. The husband is in the arms of the man next to him, the wife has her head on the bicep of another man, and their child has ended up across the thighs of a different woman.

Those who aren’t sleeping are vomiting as the waves get bigger and pound the leaking boat … then the bilge pump fails …

This whole mess / In the darkness of midnight / Looks like death / Smells like death / Embodies death / The cries / The screams / The swearing / The knocking about / The sounds of the small children / The heart-wrenching and painful sounds of the little children / These sounds transform the chaotic boat into hell.

Why don’t the people, who just hours earlier were in danger of death from the waves but now on the deck of the Australian ship listening to those same waves lick and lap harmlessly against the hull; why don’t they yell and laugh with happiness at their salvation? They sit quietly and still. Even Boochani doesn’t know why. To the Australians they must seem like, like, cargo, soundless cargo, salvaged from the sea.

Boochani has known death and fear; as a young man he wanted to fight for the liberation of his homeland, but he chose the pen over the gun. Was he a coward? Afraid of death? Then on the ocean he faced both fear and death. Saw fear in the faces of others and felt it in his guts, tasted it on his tongue; the ocean provided him with the most intimate relationship with fear and death. Now he is judged and locked up by people who know neither of these two things. Maybe he should’ve been a soldier, at least he would be shot at by people who, like him, knew about fear and death. It would be an equal fight. Just, even.

Boochani tried twice to get to Australia. He encountered fear and death on both attempts. As he scrambled onto another ill-prepared boat for his second attempt he had to admit that such an action wouldn’t be possible but for courage and foolishness. Returning to Iran, unthinkable! He was aware of his fellow travellers not really knowing any of these four demons: fear, foolishness, courage, and death. They soon would.

I’m stopping! I write this post as I read – as I usually do when reviewing a book, but it’s hard to know what not to cut and paste to show you, let you see what it sounds like because everything is worthy of quoting; every line is full of something, something worth passing on. I want to show you all of it. So, do it; just read it.

Writing allows us to “come to understand another’s point of view in the most profound way possible.” (Erica Wagner, writer, critic, and a Man-Booker Prize judge, twice)

I will continue to read this book, not out of a need for entertainment, but for enlightenment, understanding. I’ve only ever seen asylum seekers on the news, voiceless bodies behind wire. The Australian Government has not wanted us to hear what they have to say: journalists are banned on Manus and Nauru. This is the first time I have the opportunity to hear what the Australian Government does not want me to hear. That is why I will read it to the end; as I hope you will too.

You can buy the eBook ($14.99) from Pan-Macmillan here.

You can buy the Kindle version ($US11.99) here.

Arnold Zable, an Australian writer is also part of this story. You can read his SMH article and watch a short trailer for the video Chauka, please tell me the time, here

Watch Behrouz’s videoed acceptance speech, here. He was not allowed to attend the Award’s Presentation.

Unfettered and Alive: a memoir by Anne Summers

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Anne Summers: journalist, feminist, and writer. “If we constantly rewrite history to fit how we see things now, we forget how things used to be and, equally important to future scholars, how we used to see them.”

Anne Summers and her publishers have produced a handsome book, and it begins, unusually, with a letter to her thirty-year-old self: Dear Anne, and so, consequently, it’s written in the second person; and it sets the beginning as at that time, when she was thirty, and summarises what went before which was told in her first autobiographical work, Ducks on the Pond 1945-1976 (1999).  So this, a re-cap, is a neat and imaginative way to catch you up, especially if you haven’t read the earlier work; which is, by the way, now only available on Amazon US at $115.64 for the second-hand hardcover, which is cheaper than the $191.89 for a second hand paperback! However, if you can’t find a copy anywhere else, here’s the link.

For someone who, from an early age, felt profoundly at odds with what the Adelaide world of her Catholic childhood promised her: an identity based on a man and the success, or otherwise, of their children and a future slowly fading into cranky old age and invisibility, she has stubbornly and courageously shunned all of that and forged her own path that has turned out to be something like an open-ended roller-coaster. It’s a crackling tale: ecstatic highs and scary lows; and all along the way the reader gets an insight into the characters she engaged with and the history we all lived through, all in a chatty and self-effacing tone that has you barracking for her as she strides around yet another corner into the unknown, including South Africa, the badlands of western Pakistan – without a hijab, and later as Chair of Greenpeace International which took her, well, everywhere.

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Anne Summers at the National Press Club during the 1980 CHOGM meeting in Australia directing a question at British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. photo: Allan & Unwin

The personal is also covered. Her uneasy relationship with her parents, especially her father; the painful rediscovery of her paternal grandfather; there’s treachery and betrayal from colleagues and friends; a health scare; and finally meeting the love of her life, and that started in the photo-copy room! He’d been around all along!

The political years of this chronicle cover Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Howard, and Rudd/Gillard/Rudd: a turbulent, often frustrating – for us, I mean – but never a boring time in Australian politics. Of special note is her calling out the appalling misogyny Prime Minister Gillard received at the hands of the shock jocks, political opponents, and a particular, but faded, cartoonist. Her insights and insider status make fascinating reading as seen from her media perspective (her attitude to Keating changed; her attitude to Howard didn’t); and then in the middle of all that her successful empire building (and spectacular fall!) at the top of the media tree in New York “…if I can make it there, I’ll make it …..” you know how it goes! Well, she did and then, almost immediately, she didn’t!

But when down, or idle – something she hates – an opportunity passes her window or, more usually, she creates one, and so grabs it with both hands and she’s off again!

Running through all of this, is her strong advocacy for the rights of women; their professional fulfilment, all their wishes, needs, and ideas taken seriously, and the universal understanding that they make mistakes but deserve to, and be allowed to, try again. What a rich, informative, and fulfilling read this is.

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2011 Australia Day postage stamp featuring Dr Anne Summers AO.

I’ve known Anne for a few decades usually meeting with mutual friends over a sumptuous meal and a bottle of good red wine or three but I wasn’t prepared for the breadth and depth of her worldly participation nor her personal honesty.

I find scheduling reading time a sign of a good book; but you’ll also need to schedule a breather now and then. Don’t read this in bed. You’ll never get to sleep.

You can find the book here, and the kindle version here. For Indonesian readers you can find the book here.

Be very careful when Googling Anne; you’ll undoubtedly get the English Ann Summers (Ann, no ‘e’) who is a designer and marketer of raunchy women’s underwear.

 

 

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

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Yuval Noah Harari, Israeli Historian and Professor of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

For a man who likes fiction, and who usually only reads fiction, I found myself, because of Christmas, with 4 new non-fiction books on my bedside table: Anne Summers’ memoir, Unfettered and Alive; Colm Tóibín’s Mad, Bad, & Dangerous to Know: the Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce; Stephen King’s On Writing, and this one, Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014).

The first I have because Anne Summers is a friend; the second because I am a fan of Colm Tóibín and I collect everything he writes; the third was a Christmas gift from my sister; and the fourth was a grab-bag gift from the festivities of Christmas Day. They all interest me, in fact many non-fiction books interest me, but volumes of fiction always got in the way. Even now, there are seven novels hovering ready to pounce and to grab my attention.

Let’s start with Harari’s definition of history: the development of elaborate human structures called cultures which the organism known as Homo Sapiens began to form about 70,000 years ago. Once I read this I knew I was in safe hands and that I was going to, not only find out stuff that would fascinate, but that it would all be in accessible language.

Sapien’s time on this planet is a very short period in the cosmic time frame: if you could squeeze the time from the beginning of the universe to the present day into a 12 hour period, Homo Sapiens would have first stood upright at about 11.59.

The book is full of fascinating detail and remarkable insights. Homo Sapiens was not the only Homo species to exist at the same time but the reason Sapiens prevailed and destroyed the others – as one theory goes – is not because of our strength or our brain size – the Neanderthals had bigger brains and bigger bodies –  but because of one fundamental difference: our cognitive ability, via language, to imagine things that do not exist: fictions like religion, nationalism, honour, human rights, politics, literature, and (the only fiction that everyone in the world believes in) money.* These mental constructs were what enabled Homo Sapiens the where-with-all to organise themselves in large numbers. Large crowds of people, from 2,000 to 100,000 individuals can organise themselves to behave well and orderly for many hours to witness the outcome of a competition (football) or the staging of a story (Wagner’s Ring Cycle). If you put only 500 of our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees, in a theatre there would be chaos. Of course, large crowds of humans can degenerate into chaos but only when the acceptable boundaries, rules; i.e., agreed constructs, that all members of the gathering adhere to, or believed would be adhered to, are broken. For example, the premier of Stravinsky’s ballet Rite of Spring.

And fundamental to the success of our ability to co-operate in large numbers is our obsession with social information: gossip. This fascinating topic and its historical necessity I’ll leave for you to read about.

English suffers from the absence of the third-person singular and genderless personal pronoun. We have plural ones: themthey, and their, and they are allowed to be used in singular form (“Each writer needs to be merciless when re-writing their work” – his/her is no clumsy), but the long standing acceptable way around this problem has been to use the masculine singular personal pronouns: he, his, and him.  Harari raises the finger to such ‘traditions’ and opts for the feminine: she, her, and hers. A nice touch, given our current social and linguistic shenanigans around gender. It puts it firmly in the 21st century.

The language is not simplistic but is easily digestible – you need to read it with the TV off –  and is peppered with humour, irony, and hyperbole. It’s a wonderful read, entertaining, enlightening, and often astounding.

You can watch and listen to an excerpt from Harari’s TED talk (June 2015) on “Why Humans Run the World” here.

Everyone is reading this book and the two that follow it: Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016) and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018). They are everywhere. If you haven’t seen a copy you’re either blind or have just returned from Mars.

* Money was created many times in many places. It’s development required no technical breakthroughs – it was purely a mental revolution. It involved the creation of a new inter-subjective reality that exists solely in people’s shared imagination. Money is not coins and banknotes. Money is anything that people are willing to use in order to represent systematically the value of other things for the purpose of exchanging goods and services. Money enables people to compare quickly and easily the value of different commodities (such as apples, shoes and divorces), to easily exchange one thing for another, and to store wealth conveniently. Sapiens, Page 197

 

How I write.

A story starts with a jump.

When something makes me jump, a line in a book, a caption in a magazine, a phrase overheard, a tone of voice, a dream; a beginning. Short form stories are more personal than long form. I write most days but it can be on my notes page on my phone when I wake up at 3.46 am; on my iPad as I’m watching the news with a G&T at 6; on my desktop after staring at the screen for god-knows how long. Sometimes I’ll experiment. One of my current projects, a short story, I’m writing as a woman. I’ve tried this a few times but this time the woman is very unlikable, in fact she’s awful; the challenge is to make sure the reader understands that she’s awful. The reader has not to be on her side, yet is, in a way. That’s tricky, and more so as it’s in the first person. I test myself like this sometimes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

At a New Year’s Eve party a friend told me a little anecdote about his piano lessons as a boy. I now don’t remember exactly what he told me because I turned it into a story and now, in my head, that story, Prelude, has become the reality of the anecdote. It’s no longer John’s anecdote, it’s Michael’s story.

I’m writing when my partner catches me talking to myself. I’m writing when I don’t answer him because I don’t hear him because I’m wondering what Robert will say when he sees his dead mother. “What? Sorry.” is a common phrase of mine at home.

I spew it onto the screen. I try not to worry about where does this fit or what can I do with this or how do I spell …, I just let it out. I usually write chronologically, but not always.

I’m always aware that I have to trust myself, my imagination, my ideas, my abilities. It’s no good second guessing; I’d get nowhere. What comes pouring out in the white heart of creation I have to trust that it’s right, correct, apt, necessary, true. It’s later when the white-heat is down to warm, in the cool light of next morning that decisions have to be made.

I write on an online publishing platform (Tablo); while the piece is labeled ‘draft’ no-one can read it. I have four or five projects going at once; two novels, three short stories, I think. One of them is dormant until I come across a really fail-safe murder plan. Once it’s finished I ‘publish’ it on Tablo and anyone can read it. I also have the option of posting it to iBooks where it is for sale. Regularly I email my notes, from my phone or iPad, to myself and cut and paste them onto the respective Tablo page. I have an iMac and don’t have Word; Tablo has all the editing tools I need.

When I’m trying to go to sleep at night it’s important to think about only one thing, not 247 things. That’s why counting sheep works. It’s one thing. I also concentrate on one thing: what Robert might do when he sees his dead mother, or any other character or snippet. These stories, half in my head, half on my screen, over time develop their own reality and they always get to a point where it’s imperative that I write them down; I have to write them down because they are the closest thing to the truth I know. If I don’t write them down they just sit there taking up space. Getting in the way. Writing them down is like getting rid of them.

But writing them down has its own responsibilities. I must think of the reader. I must get the process right. The process: my story, my descriptions, my ideas, my images being transported accurately, truthfully from my imagination to the reader’s imagination via little dark marks on a pale background, with no loss of information.

Once it’s in the imagination of the reader, it isn’t mine any more, and it means whatever the reader thinks it means. I have no say in it once it’s there, in your head. If you read the short story linked above, what was John’s anecdote, became my story, becomes your reading experience; and if you seek me out and ask me what did I mean by something, I won’t answer. It’s not my place to answer: it’s not mine, it’s yours now. It’s now you that has to trust your abilities.

Bad Blood: a walk along the Irish border by Colm Tóibín

 

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Young Colm Tóibín

In a pub in the little cross-road town of Cullaville, just two fields north of the border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, the bar has two till-drawers: one for Euros (Irish currency) and one for the British pound. More than 200 formal and informal roads (tractor and foot paths) cross the border and it isn’t often clear for travellers which country they are in; sometimes it may only be the change of the speed-limit that may give them a clue, sometimes nothing at all.

Alastair McDonnell, an MP from Belfast has been flooded with queries, following the Brexit vote, from his constituents about what will happen if the border becomes ‘hard’ again. It’s possible that come the reality of Brexit (2019 says British PM, Therese May) little border towns like Cullaville will potentially become the EU’s back door to Britain.

Anne Devlin, a resident of the North who buys her petrol in the South where it’s cheaper, said, “Brexit got everyone talking, that’s for sure. It reminds everyone who is who, where is where, north or south, the Troubles, all of that.” It’s been only 18 years since the last bomb exploded during the religious-based conflict that claimed more than 3,500 lives.

With the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 between the UK and the Irish Republic the path was finally set for peace but which didn’t come for another 13 years with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. In the summer of 1986 Colm Tóibín walked the border in preparation for his account of the feat published the following year: Bad Blood: a walk along the Irish border. Actually it was more like a ‘drink’ along the Irish border: Colm likes his ale.

For a border that may now need to be re-fortified, given the European refugee problem that doesn’t look like slowing down – certainly not within the next two years, its ‘hardness’ may have many other repercussions. Sometimes it runs through the middle of someone’s field; in South Armagh (the North) there is a shop whose “doorway itself was the border, the outside of the shop being in the North, every entry and exit involved smuggling”; and not only that, where the border separates County Fermanagh (the North) from County Caven (the South) there is a house where “the border went right through like a slicer through a block of cheese.

The house was a small, modest, old-fashioned cottage. When I knocked on the door a man in his sixties came out. His name was Felix Murray, I discovered, and the border ran through his house in which he and his two brothers lived. These days, he said, all three slept in the North, but there was a time when one of them had slept in the South. ‘Only an odd time now,’ he said, ‘we sleep in the State’. There was a sofa in the kitchen, he pointed out through the window. Where you could sit and let the border run through you.”

This was 20 years ago and things may be a different now but as you can see from the image below, the border to this day, seems a long way from logical.

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His early non-fiction shows the development of Tóibín’s style later employed, to some extent, in his novels; his first novel, The South, was published in the following year, 1990. His fiction shows his debt to journalism with his plain unadorned prose, seen here in Bad Blood.

“I told him I was writing a book. He invited us in. He didn’t say anything. The front room of the house was small and comfortable. There was a fire lit. A television and a video machine stood in the corner.”

Compare this is a passage from his second novel, The Heather Blazing (1992),

“His grandmother was in the kitchen with his Aunt Margaret and his Aunt Molly who was married to his Uncle Patrick. Two of his cousins were in his the back room in cowboy suits. They all stood round as Eamon distributed the presents. Stephen sat by the fire, huddled in against the wall with his legs crossed. He opened his parcel slowly and smiled when he saw the book.”  Short, bald, unadorned sentences.

Tóibín trusts his readers to do most of the descriptive work and gives them great responsibility to fill in the detail, so much so that in his latest novel, Nora Webster (2014) no place or person is described: every reader has a hometown, its feel and smells, and every reader knows a nosy neighbour or a favourite aunt and Tóibín relies on this reader-experience. In this way Toibin’s work, for readers, becomes very personal. A reader from Melbourne, Australia, on finishing reading The South, slept with it under her pillow for two weeks.

In 1989, even though the border may have been on the map it wasn’t, in a lot of places, on the land (large white crosses had to be painted on roads to make the border visible to British helicopter pilots), but it was in people’s hearts. Back then it was all about tension in the air but a stiff upper British lip, this is in the North, was still the way people behaved.

At dinner in a hospitable family house in the North the first course served was beetroot soup. Toibin, from the South, innocently commented that it was called borscht, and it was a great favourite of the Pope’s. That word hung in the air like a fart. Everyone stopped listening and became immensely interested in their soup and the care it took to not let it spill on the white tablecloth. No-one spoke.

Religion was not at the heart of it but at the bottom of it.

“Yes, one of them said, the older people maintained that the accidents were a sort of revenge for what was done to the Grahams. God, you know, did I understand? It was God. It seemed like a large number of young people from the same area, I said, to be killed in accidents. They nodded grimly. I said I didn’t think it was God. No, they agreed, they didn’t either. It was just something which was said.”

Since Brexit the talk now is again about Irish re-unification: Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein (once a terrorist organisation, now a major political player), said that since the vote by the North against Brexit (56%) a referendum over unification was necessary, Michael Martin leader of the main opposition party in Ireland agrees; Arlene Foster, first minister of the North, thinks such a move would be ‘a folly’.

When Tóibín walked the border the air was still tense. Now a lot of golf is being played and it’s a nice place to be a cow. In people’s lives now the border is a shadow: it’s crossed for shopping, for school, for selling. No-one wants it to become a frontier again. What everyone wants is for the leaders in London, Brussels, Dublin and Belfast to manage Brexit while preserving the peace and allowing the economy to flourish. They’ve got 2 years.

A Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker

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American psychologist and language expert, Steven Pinker

If you are bored rigid by style guides, grammar tomes, and ‘How to write’ books, skip this one. However if you are fascinated by the building blocks of a sentence; how English has changed; and the black, white, and beige of grammar rules then keep reading.

Steven Pinker, the American “Rock Star” psychologist and a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University conducts research on language and cognition and has penned many popular and accessible books on language, the mind, and thought. His latest book is this one which came out in 2014 and for which he received the International Award of the Plain English Campaign.

Generally commentators on the English language fall into two broad camps: the prescriptivists, those who believe there are rules that define how language should be used, and that mistakes result from breaking those rules; and the descriptivists, those who believe that a language is defined by what people do with it. You may recognise the former as “sticklers, pedants, peevers, snobs, snoots, nit-pickers, traditionalists, language police, usage nannies, grammar Nazis, and the Gotcha! Gang” but Pinker also damns the latter as “hypocrites: they adhere to standards of correct usage in their own writing but discourage the teaching and dissemination of those standards to others, thereby denying the possibility of social advancement to the less privileged.”

Pinker is the chair of the Usage Panel of the famously prescriptive American Heritage Dictionary but he quotes the editor as saying, “We pay attention to the way people use the language”, a clearly descriptive view. Pinker, like most writers and readers, sit on the fence. Their anchor? Clarity and meaning. There are words that we continuously mis-use, such as decimate to mean ‘destroy most of’ instead of ‘destroy a tenth of’. There is no point in using the word in its original meaning if the reader or listener believes it to mean something else. The old prescriptivist rule of ‘never split an infinitive’ only exists because of the early English need to squeeze the language to fit Latin rules. The Latin word for the English verb to go is a single word ire; it’s impossible to split a single word but splitting the English word is of course possible: ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’ is fine by Steven Pinker, and most people, I suspect.

His chapter 3, The Curse of Knowledge, is a delight and has cleared up that old annoyance illustrated in the following cartoon

Giving Directions cartoon TNY

“The curse of knowledge: a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.” When someone gives you inadequate (to you) directions that they think are obvious (to them) and ends with the phrase ‘you can’t miss it’, you usually will. See! It’s their fault, not yours.

And did you notice I used the plural pronoun they for a singular subject someone? This has been common usage for over a century and solves the English language’s lack of a neutral singular pronoun. Oh, and did you notice I began that sentence with the conjunction, and? This was something that was considered the grammatical sin of sins in the 60s and 70s but has again been used for centuries.

However the last, and longest chapter Telling Right from Wrong will give you a lot of joy, understanding, and the edge in arguments about where to put that comma, when to use lay and lie, and the sometimes acceptable use of an adjective when the grammar police insist on an adverb.

Eggs over easily

P.S. In a student exam paper, recently, there appeared a sentence that confused everyone. “It would be a great idea if we went to the park tomorrow.” This is a sentence about the future but with the modal verb would, and the auxiliary past tense verb went. Using the future form sounds strange: “It will be a great idea if we will go to the park tomorrow.” No, the past tense is correct. This is called factual remoteness as Pinker explains with the example, If you left now, you would get there on time. “The if-clause contains a verb which sets up a hypothetical world; the then-clause explores what will happen in that world, using a modal auxiliary. Both clauses use the past tense to express the meaning ‘factual remoteness’.”

Note the full stop after the quote (not ‘ ….remoteness.’”). You’ll have to read the book now to find out what Pinker says about this (or is it that?).

You can by the kindle edition, and paper editions, here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What W. H. Auden Can do for You by Alexander McCall Smith

Auden via Smith

In a primary school in a small country town on the Adelaide Plain in South Australia in 1960-something, poetry was a page of writing, usually with a rhyming pattern of a-a-b-b or, if we were good, a-b-a-b, given to us students at Friday’s last session. The copies were made on that ancient, clumsy, messy, clanky machine: the Gestetna. Each student had a poetry exercise book, blank not lined. We had to carefully smear Clag on the back of the poetry page and stick it nicely, no splodges, onto the right hand side of a double page in our poetry exercise book. On the blank left-hand page we had to draw something inspired by the poem. No matter what the poem was about, spring, the Queen, a train, elephants, I always drew a two dimensional, two-storey house as big as the page would allow; so big in fact that the smoke coming from the chimney – there was always a smoking chimney – had nowhere to go except, unrealistically, down the side of the page towards the ground. The teacher never made a comment about this.

No attempt was ever made to make us think that we could possibly write a poem. I didn’t write one but I learned one: a poem of the “A starling, a silly little darling, such a pretty sight to see” variety. I recited this poem to my parents one day in the car on the way to Adelaide, that little flat city that was the capital of the state and, to me, the centre of the universe. My stepfather said nothing: he was deaf. My mother said something nice to me, which I liked. I liked it very much even though my mother’s praise was usually of the “That’s nice, dear, but don’t get too big for your boots” variety. Somehow I understood that she thought that I had written it. I didn’t know how to tell her that I hadn’t and, besides the warmth of praise, even meagre praise, was something rare and utterly delightful. I let her believe that I had written it and felt guilty for years to come, especially since she made me write it down and submit it to my monthly children’s magazine, and in which it was printed. I thought the police would arrive any day and take me away and do what they did to little boys who told lies, claimed other people’s words as their own, and thought poems were things to be proud about.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with poetry ever since: I love mine but hate everyone else’s. I thought for a long time that my schoolteachers weren’t telling me something: like a missing bit from an IKEA pack. However then I thought that maybe I was not getting something so I read a lot of poetry and from all those years only three have gained some traction in my satisfaction bank: Robert Browning’s Porphyria’s Lover, a narrative poem of sacrificial love but, as I understood later, extremely misogynistic; William Carlos Williams’ To a Poor Old Woman which is simple-sad but strong and showed me that poetry doesn’t need punctuation if the lines are the right length; and Clive James’ Japanese Maple which is about approaching death which is apt since he’s dying (talk-about write what you know!).

Anyway, imagine my expectation when I saw Alexander McCall Smith What W. H. Auden can do for you (2013) on a friend’s bookshelf. Maybe I’ll find what I’m looking for in this little book.

Mr. McCall Smith (or is it simply Mr. Smith?) obviously loves poetry and has been reading it since he was 15 and he also obviously loves Auden, although he seems eager to point out that his little tome is not a hagiography. Auden has often been criticized for using words simply for effect and without real regard to their meaning; a criticism McCall Smith agrees with. Here is a quote from his Letters from Iceland (1937).

And the traveller hopes; ‘Let me be far from my

Physician’; and the ports have names for the sea;

The citiless, the corroding, the sorrow;

And North means to all: Reject!’

The curious line “and the ports have names for the sea” is actually a misprint: he meant ‘poets’ but ‘ports’ was printed. Auden left it in. He liked the sound of it. The other line of interest is “Let me be far from my physician.” McCall Smith is critical of this word too, but as I read the first line the surprise certainly came with the word ‘physician’. I was expecting ‘mother’ or ‘country’ or ‘crowds’ (as McCall Smith suggests) but with the surprise came understanding. I read it as ‘far from all that is safe and fixable.’ McCall Smith thought it may stand “for all that is overly fussy and cosseting in modern society.” The point here is that, no matter what Auden meant, and what he meant is really irrelevant: meaning is in the mind of the reader. I’m sticking to my ‘safe and fixable.’

McCall Smith makes it clear that Auden’s homosexuality was reflective of his time which was full of perverse contradictions: single sex boarding schools which thrust a single sex together while punishing single sex itself, which is itself reflective in the hypocrisy of calling moneyed schools ‘public’ as if their money was for all, which it wasn’t. Such a system, a bed of oppression and treachery, not surprisingly, also produced spies. And intellectuals who in their declining years re-embraced Christianity, as did Auden. All this is mirrored in his choice of subjects, Freud, limestone, Iceland, Spain, Hitler, Rome, love – sexual and not, dreams, birds, water, fascism, and vales but not mountains.

Knowing something of the poet, and his times, helps in understanding his poetry; even an older Auden disowned the words of his younger self. Thank god he told us. McCall Smith also states that influences of time and place can’t be ignored. He identifies two great influences on artistic endeavour in the twentieth century: war and Freud… Now, hang on! All I’m looking for is an ‘in’ to the appreciation of poetry and here, Auden’s in particular. I, nor anyone, have the time for an academic investigation to eek out meaning to the words I’ve just read.

In the musical theatre characters sing when the emotion, or action, expressed is bigger than the text, when just words are not enough. Similarly it seems with poetry: it’s louder, stronger, more complex, more succinct, and usually more effective than mere words. To write about political decline, as he did in The Fall of Rome, less is more:

The piers are pummelled by the waves;

In a lonely field the rain

Lashes an abandoned train;

Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

 

 

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;

Agents of the Fisc pursue

Absconding tax-defaulters through

The sewers of provincial towns.

 

 

Private rites of magic send

The temple prostitutes to sleep;

All the literati keep

An imaginary friend. …

 

 

Caesar’s double-bed is warm

As an unimportant clerk

Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK

On a pink official form…

The imagery here is singular but powerful: an abandoned train; fantastical evening gowns; tax-defaulters fleeing through sewers; private rites of magic; sleeping leaders; and an unimportant and disillusioned clerk. These are four of the six verses in the poem; Edward Gibbon’s  The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire stands at 12 massive tomes With Auden you don’t get the history, but you get the idea.

What I take from this book is the affirmation that if a poem doesn’t speak to you, read it again, really listen to what the words, and, more importantly, the words together, conjure, and what you think it means is what it means, but if you still can’t hear anything, put it back and read something else.

W. H. Auden
British poet, Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973)

Oh, and in 1940-41 W. H. Auden lived in Brooklyn Heights in a house, that has become known as the February House, with Benjamin Britten, Jane and Paul Bowles, Carson McCullers and Gypsy Rose Lee. What a Sunday-lunch gathering that would be!

For more insight into poetry John Goodman succinctly explains obscurity in poetry, not forgetting that obscurity as a fad in art comes and goes. You can read his article here.

And you can listen to Auden himself reading his As I Walked Out One Evening (1937) here.