Swimming With Books

A writer's reading journal, & sundry other notes.

Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

Rich reading, and reasons to write

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Wulf This morning, in time set aside to write, I slunk away from my desk for half an hour and started Hamish Clayton’s Wulf (Penguin Books, 2011: you can read an informative review here). I found myself wanting to read aloud so as to live the words and see the images:

Every word spoken, sent like a raft of smoke onto the air of that strange country, smelled like the blood riding the breath of their great chief..

The prose is mesmerising and there’s promise of a compelling story. I also love the occasional prose-poetry that marks off segments in the first chapter, and Clayton’s hypnotic use of repetition. (Made a mental note to mention him in writing classes as an example of a writer who breaks that not-particularly-hard-&-fast rule beautifully. Beginner writers often unconsciously repeat words from sentence to sentence.) This’ll probably turn out to be one of those books that will live on my bookshelves all my life: no trade-in at Arty Bees.

I did write, finding my way in the dark as usual. I love those sparking moments when a new aspect of a character whom you barely know enough to narrate, yet, reveals itself. Kept my leg tied to the chair.

I’ve also recently read Their Faces Were Shining (Tim Wilson, VUP), and August (Bernard Beckett, Text Publishing), but won’t write about those novels here as am reviewing them for New Zealand Books. However, I’ll say it was no hardship to have to reread them while preparing the review, and anyone who wants to be happily submerged in fiction over the Easter weekend could look to these two  New Zealand writers.

Old SchoolA significant cohort of the boys at Tobias Wolff’s Old School (set, I think, in the 1950s) want to be writers. Of course, there’s no mention of the Internet, or America’s Next Top Model, or MTV. This atmosphere of dedicated literacy reminded me of reading old copies of Life magazine in Wellington Central Library while researching early 1960s US culture, and being startled by the elegance, lyricism and complexity of their current affairs writing – politics aside.

The school believes itself to be an egalitarian meritocracy, blind to class or financial distinctions. However, Wolff’s protagonist, hiding his Jewishness because he has the ‘tremor of apprehension’ that the school somehow sets apart those identifying as Jewish, speculates on the motivation of the aspiring writers:

Maybe it seemed to them, as it did to me, that to be a writer was to escape the problems of blood and class. Writers formed a society of their own outside the common hierarchy.

Does anyone out there want to comment on why they write? Elizabeth Knox included her essay ‘Why I Write’ in her  collection, The Love School (more on that another time). Elizabeth seems to me like someone who has always worked in interesting ways towards being conscious of what’s going on in her mind (although she’s also said that she’s not the type of writer who’s solely curious about her psychological workings, but instead naturally turns to making up stories, which tendency is pretty clear from the novels she’s written). This extract is a lovely example of the consciousness, though:

In the dedication at the beginning of R. L. Stevenson’s novel The Master of Ballantrae, the writer talks as if to to the father, who, addled by strokes, is no longer able to follow his work. Stevenson says what I’d like to say in dedicating my next book to my dead father (to the man his family all but lost years before he died). Stevenson says it perfectly, but I’d like to add this – that you don’t just walk away from any of the people from whom you write. You notice them missing. You stop and go back and try to coax and help. You stand still and wait for them to be themselves again. Perhaps you get mad with them. But you wait, you wait. Then finally you walk off and leave them behind. And you find that, while you’ve waited, a dark wood has sprung up around you…

(A friend recently returned my copy of The Love School. I had mourned it, unable to remember whom I’d lent it to and thinking it lost, but it was on her bedside table the whole time, one of a pile of books lent over a year ago during a post-op recovery period. She’s very good about – eventually – returning books, so I needn’t have worried. These days I write down every book that leaves the house in a notebook kept on the bookshelves for the purpose. No more lost books! Who has my copy of Maurice Gee’s The Big Season, or Patricia Grace’s Baby No-Eyes? Huh?)

If we narrate our lives through our thoughts and dreams, first, and then through incidental conversations at work or the bus stop or on the pillow or in the car, that has never felt like enough for me. When I haven’t been writing, I feel like I don’t know myself. Even if everything other element in life is running along perfectly, it all feels skewiff. Conversely, dust can accumulate, letters can go unanswered, my attempts at cooking dinner can be mediocre, and it’s all OK if I’ve written, even if the writing is unusable. And there’s something about joining in with the song, the continued murmur, that long-lasting overseeing conversation and the talk that goes beyond our daily experience and is also tied to it.

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Written by Susan Pearce

April 19, 2011 at 3:57 pm

Posted in Essay, Fiction, Memoir

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Michael Chabon on writing

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Manhood for Amateurs

After enjoying CK Stead’s memoir I was in the mood for more writing memoir, so was pleased to find Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs on the biography shelves of Cummings Park Library. I took it to WOMAD where (because of its title, I guess) it was twice mistaken for the reading matter of the sole male in our group.

Chabon is a marvellous, energetic writer, lively and hyper-engaged with the world and his own mind.  He’s quick with metaphor, often cramming several into the same sentence, and seems as intent on entertaining us as a circus ringmaster.

I think the book deserves a slower, more considered reading than I gave it – I was after some easy distraction – but part of my tendency to skimread in the latter half of the book did arise from a heretical feeling that I was reading something not completely unrelated, in tone, to an Oprah magazine. If you’ve read more than one copy of that magazine, you may be aware that from every experience must come a lesson: something to take away with you that will inform the rest of your life. (You may also suspect, as I do, that the magazine is copy-edited by an automated cheerleader: I haven’t sat down and analysed the style but the tone never differs from article to article.) Maybe it’s just that he’s a huge personality, whose writing has an overwhelming flavour, and I probably did do the book a disservice by reading the essays fast, all at once. But I got a little bit fed up with him, towards the end.

But Chabon’s essays are often very moving, and I wanted to read large chunks of the book to friends with children who fiddle with Lego and lack wilderness to play in, or who make mistakes.  He’s brilliant, and incidentally provides more evidence towards my (fairly obvious) thesis that if you want to be a writer, it helps to be an optimist (about writing, at any rate).  In ‘XO9’, he makes it sound rather desirable to possess a dollop of OCD-inclined DNA:

When I consider the problem-solving nature of writing fiction – how whatever book I happen to be working on is always broken, stuck, incomplete, a Yale lock that won’t open, a subroutine that won’t execute, yet day after day I return to it knowing that if I just keep at it, I will pop the thing loose – it begins to seem to me that writing may be in part a disorder: sheer, unfettered XO9.

Yes, in part, perhaps, the ability to keep on going when there is no rational reason to do so: pretty much the opposite of any guarantee that the story will work, that it’ll succeed, that it’ll demonstrate that your mind is not repeating itself, that it’ll help pay the mortgage. Knowing that if I keep at it, I will pop the thing loose.

Chabon also comments on his difficulty with writing women. He resents this difficulty from a feminist perspective: why should it be so hard, seeming ‘to endorse the view that there is some mystic membrane separating male and female consciousness’? I appreciate that he notes that he does have difficulty, that he doesn’t necessarily get it all right when he seeks to ‘create in my fiction living, fiery female characters to match the life and fire of various real women I have known’.   I can’t imagine Nabokov or Flaubert making that last statement.

Written by Susan Pearce

April 9, 2011 at 3:53 pm

C K Stead’s memoir

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South-West of Eden: A Memoir, 1932-1956South-West of Eden: A Memoir, 1932-1956 by C.K. Stead

I finished this memoir of Stead’s first 24 years and  wished that he would immediately publish a second volume. He won’t, though, because the events he’d need to describe (and his opinions of the people involved) would certainly provoke a stream of letters to the Listener.

I delighted in his sensibilities and insights, and  in his elegant sentences. Having been in general lazy about reading poetry, I am now keen to read his. And the breadth of his reading and literary knowledge has impelled me to further discipline my own reading (including, if I’m really brave and determined, my Arty Bees copy of The New Poetic: Yeats to Eliot). I was touched by Stead’s reflective tone and his generosity to the reader regarding his love for Kay, his wife.

This book made me feel (in a small way) like part of the stream of writing, and of NZ literature. Describing the hen house of his childhood garden, Stead says ‘Being essentially an ear person, I was quick to learn the hen’s language…’. This made me think of being not an ‘ear’ person, but a feelings person, always wandering around making up stories about the psychological states of the people I see.

The poet Vincent O’Sullivan reviews Dear Charles Dear Janet: Frame and Brasch in Correspondence in the Autumn 2011 issue of the excellent New Zealand Books (subscribe if you care about NZ having an independent literary culture). In the review, he quotes Frame as writing,

I’m afraid I breathe metaphors…it is the obsession with images which prompts me to write.

O’Sullivan goes on to say,

Thus she puts her finger on the kind of fabulist she is. The metaphoric is what allows her to change ground, to take herself and her reader from there, where you, they, and the rest of the world, are so in command, to here, where the writer alone rules, imposes, calls the shots. Metaphor to Frame is what logic is to the logician. It is how power is defined, and how it is achieved.

I am fascinated by how different writers’ minds operate, and how a writer’s mind can help or hinder writing.

The hens (in the garden of his early childhood) also feature in Stead’s recurring ‘writing dream’:

“In this dream I am seized with the terrible realisation that it is my job to see the hens fed and given water, and that I have neglected them for many years, so long they must surely be dead…[But he sees them running towards him, ‘alive and well, their feathers glossy in the sun’.]…Twice that dream has been followed by the breaking of a drought in my writing…”

For years I dreamt occasionally of being in a very large old home, with long dark corridors that would sometimes break into enormous halls or dining rooms, and with back staircases that led into hidden stone bedrooms. It is (clearly to me) Tirley Garth, the stately home where I lived with my parents and many other people for about a year and a half in early childhood, even though the interiors in my dreams were even larger and weirder, as though several large hotels had been joined with several ancient monasteries.

Eventually I realised (again clear only to me) that the dreams of exploring these corridors and rooms (equally terrifying and fascinating) were about my need to write. Stead and I must not be the only writers with ‘writing dreams’ but his chicken dream is the only other one I’ve heard of.

(I dreamt last night that Damien Wilkins overheard me say this and mentioned a famous writer who has explored the writing dream idea. In the dream I had a moment of ‘canon inadequacy’, you know, all those important writers you haven’t read. This morning I can’t remember the writer’s name.)

Stead briefly discusses Moral Re-Armament, the group my parents (and maternal grandparents) were involved with,  and that his parents considered for some weeks before deciding against it on the grounds that the MRA plays, which they had been attending in Karangahape Road, were too boring to put up with any more.  Stead suggests that his father, who was a committed socialist, saw MRA as perhaps promising a kind of ‘middle way’:  individual change for the greater good, in a group that seemed to transcend ordinary religion.

I’m fascinated by this connection with my background , and that Stead missed out on an MRA upbringing despite his parents’ idealism, thanks to his mother’s instinct against bad art. My parents were (my father still is) idealists to their fingertips, but the passion for reading that ran through my father’s family skipped him: neither of my parents read fiction.

My step-mother, who is Stead’s contemporary and who is involved with the group (now called Initiatives for Change), agrees with Stead’s mother about the plays.

I was not so much in sympathy with Stead’s comment about his strapping for talking out of turn in class being equivalent to his Maori contemporaries being strapped for speaking their own language in class. To point out the obvious, he was strapped for speaking when he was meant to be silent, whereas speakers of Maori were strapped for using their own, banned-by-legislation language. And it was banned because their people were deemed by those in authority to be dying out. This is one of several comments Stead makes about Maori, or about Maori-Pakeha relations. Another is about a statue of a Maori on Queen Street, which Stead says, has something odd-looking on its shoulder which a friend has suggested ‘may be a chip’. This attitude seems like something of a blind spot in an otherwise extraordinary intelligence.

I was also intrigued by Stead’s closing comment on the story of a fellow pupil, a brilliant girl who was removed early from school by her Closed Brethren parents. He names her, and at the end of the half-page description, he says that he has written her story into the book ‘to record the waste, and to lay the blame’.

Of course, he’s opinionated, but strong opinion and imagination are not mutually exclusive, and that latter clause seems to me like a failure of imagination. Surely it’s clear that the parents were responsible for the decision that wasted their daughter’s potential, without having to spell out their fault in the matter. Stead apparently closes off his own imagining of the parents’ situations and psychology, which doesn’t seem like good practice for a fiction writer.

I enjoyed seeing that Stead and I have ‘met’  over his opinion, in regard to his character of Cecilia Skyways in his brilliant All Visitors Ashore, of whether it’s OK to fictionalise Janet Frame:

The wonderful thing about fiction is that you are not shackled to facts. To truth, yes – but only a general truth, a truth your readers will recognise as humanly possible, even likely, at least credible. In All Visitors Ashore that was the truth I served. Cecilia Skyways is Janet Frame idealised. But who is to say that the fiction is not a better, truer, deeper recall of the ‘real’, the interior, the magical Janet Frame?

Best to end with the master writer’s words. I hope he does write a second volume of memoir. After all, a lot of the controversy is already in the public domain.

Written by Susan Pearce

March 28, 2011 at 9:21 am