Swimming With Books

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

Posts Tagged ‘the writer’s mind

Where do ideas come from?

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Benjamin Franklin's map of the Gulf Stream

Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat Pray Love) is of the opinion
that ideas and creativity circle the world like gulfstreams, looking for ‘portals’, and if you’re not open to them, they’ll go and find someone who is. I get the impression that she means actual gulfstreams of ideas, just as she seems to mean actual angels when she talks about angels.

I too entertain some unverifiable ideas, though I don’t have Gilbert’s ability to believe in discrete, human-like supernatural entities. But for writing purposes, I’ve found that pretending to believe can be useful. Our imaginations believe and act on what we tell them.

Back when I was writing the first draft of Acts of Love, I tussled with the character who eventually turned out to be Stella. At that point she had a different name, and having written a few chapters, I couldn’t figure out anything further about her or what she might do. Stuck stuck stuck. One day I got myself into a bit of a makebelieve trance and told her I’d ‘interview’ her. My agreement with myself was that she temporarily existed outside the world of the book. She was to talk to me, the writer, about the way I was writing her, and about what might happen to her in the novel. Then I wrote non-stop in my notebook in ‘her’ voice for about forty-five minutes. Amongst a load of twaddle, she said something which changed the direction of her character: ‘I’m not as angry as you’re making me out to be.’

That was a surprise. At the time I couldn’t see any way for her not to be fundamentally furious. But over the following months she changed shape (and name) into a less whiny, more active person. I’m not suggesting that I actually communed with her ‘spirit’. I knew, at the time, that I was fooling myself. And I understood that something in me knew more about her character than I consciously knew at the time.

In the same Radiolab podcast that I linked to above, Gilbert also talks about finding the title for her bestseller Eat Pray Love. Essentially, this consisted of gently asking the manuscript to reveal its name to her.

I thought this sounded a little kooky (though really I wish I had Gilbert’s ability to believe like this – it’s as though she never became divorced from that childlike part of herself), but historically I’ve been bad with titles. I still haven’t officially graduated my MA – ten years this year – because I’ve been too embarrassed by my collection’s title to lodge it in the university library. I really must get onto that.

Recently I needed to find the title for a story and having just listened to the podcast, thought I’d trick my imagination into setting up a quick link into my conscious mind. There’s a fairly left-field body-mind thing that I do, so I did that, and asked the story for its title, and ta-da, there it was. Not perfect, not particularly memorable (‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’) but good enough for a deadline and a lot better than any of my previous attempts.

Are those eyes benign or scary?

This idea that so much of what we write comes out of the non-cognitive parts of our minds does fascinate me. In the Guardian Weekly (11.02.11), John Gray wrote in the The Hunt for Immortality that  H. G. Wells, having absorbed Darwinism, was convinced that humanity would become extinct unless right-thinking people seized control of evolution. He thought the Bolsheviks would do a great job of creating a higher species, and found Lenin ‘very refreshing’. He wrote that if the Soviet state killed lots of people, ‘it did on the whole kill for a reason and for an end’. Chilling.

However, Gray points out,

“His scientific romances tell a very different story. When the time traveller journeys into the future, in The Time Machine, he finds a world built on cannibalism, with the delicate Eloi seemingly content to be farmed as food for the brutish morlocks, and travelling on into the far future finds a darkening Earth where the only life is green slime. In The Island of Dr Moreau the visionary vivisectionist performs vile experiments on animals with the aim of remaking them as humans. The result is the ugly, tormeted “best-folk” – a travesty of humanity.

Wells’s fables were a kind of automatic writing – messages from his subliminal self that his conscious mind dismissed. They teach a lesson starkly at odds with the one he spent his life preaching: the advance of knowledge cannot deliver humans from themselves, and if they use science to direct the course of evolution the result will be monsters. This was Wells’s true vision, always inwardly denied, and for much of his life expressed only in his scientific romances.”

Gray suggests that despite what Wells thought he believed about the construction of a ‘higher species’, Wells’s subconscious knew better: that it was wiser, closer to the truth, and more far-seeing. (Though ‘closer to the truth’ just shows my own biases.)

How can we know ourselves well enough so that, maybe, we can write the strongest stuff in us without it having to trickle down through the convoluted pathways and firewalls we may have set up between our dreamworld and our conscious minds? The best way I’ve found, so far, is just to write, and write some more. More on that another time.

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Written by Susan Pearce

June 6, 2011 at 10:04 pm

Posted in Essay

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Franzen: Correction

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FreedomBack in February, I  commented that I had felt ‘consumed by’ Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and enjoyed the experience less than reading Patrick Evan’s excellent Gifted (a pointless comparison). I used the phrase ‘Franzen’s obvious manipulation of his readers’.

Who was I kidding? I love obsessing about characters, lying awake imagining myself living their lives, replaying scenes in my head, and I don’t at all mind being manipulated by a master storyteller.

I love the enormous scope of The Corrections and of Freedom. I love the richness of Franzen’s characters. I admire his facility with structure. I love his sentences.

One of my reading friends thinks several of Freedom‘s characters are caricatures.  I can’t comment because my critical faculties were switched off while I read.  It doesn’t take much to flick that switch: a good enough story, an authoritative hand, compelling characters.

If I had been honest with myself back in February, I would have said that I regretted reading Freedom so fast; that I wish, when reading novels that make me voraciously curious about their characters, I didn’t fly over the paragraphs in a hectic race to find out what happens.  I felt grumpy while reading Freedom: couldn’t focus on anything practical, neglecting domestic duties and writing. The grumpiness had to do with feeling out of control, and being reminded of an earlier period of my life when I only read to escape. Also, I hadn’t given myself permission to rush.  In my reading plan, Freedom wasn’t a holiday distraction. I wanted to learn from it. But at the time, my desire to relieve the tension of not knowing what happened to the characters was greater.

Right now my husband is reading the final chapters of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to our son, and on wandering downstairs to make a cup of tea, I hear details that I either missed completely or registered in some less conscious zone so as to be able to speed onwards. (My son, on the other hand, gets the business with the wands – who had which wand at what point – and is going to explain it to me over dinner.)  It makes me a little sad, knowing that I didn’t savour the full resonance of every detail and missed out on some of the connections with the previous six books.  But I’m addicted to pay-off. That’s why a novel like Patrick Evan’s Gifted comes as a relief. The more reflective, slower-paced tone helps me to read more gently. (Which is not to say that I had any less interest in the novel’s outcome.)

I’m thinking about this because to me the intensity of one’s reading is obviously connected to how engaged one is with the world; with each experience.  And I think that to some extent, that determines the strength of one’s writing.

Written by Susan Pearce

April 30, 2011 at 7:47 pm

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.

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

Janet Frame’s Towards Another Summer

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Towards Another Summer
Feb 6th: I copied the following paragraph onto the whiteboard for my writing class yesterday, offering it as an on-the-button description of what might happen if you don’t ‘look sharply after your thoughts’, as Emerson said. It comes towards the end of the novel, at the beginning of a chapter in which Grace has been invited to view her host’s office in the attic:

She sat before Philip’s huge desk, considering the drawers and pigeonholes crammed with papers…How could he dare to give a stranger permission to enter this room! Or was this room not the repository of his secrets? Perhaps he himself had no access to his treasures; perhaps he hoarded them elsewhere without ever recognising them; perhaps he discarded them one by one without ever having known them?

There were several passages like this one, that made me stop and wish to commit them to memory. Now, of course, I can’t really remember what they were about…there’s one that describes the subtley shifting expressions on Philip’s face as (she surmises) his feelings change. I particularly enjoyed the chapters that deal with the book’s present moment, in the cold northern city that Grace is visiting. But those chapters act as coat hangers for the chapters about childhood memories, and after a while, wonderfully evocative as they are, those representations of memory seem somewhat self-indulgent & not to fill any larger purpose in the narrative.

Jan 26th: Having finished Patrick Evan’s Gifted, I picked up Towards Another Summer again and took it on our camping trip to the Whangaparoa Peninsula. I bought it when it came out but, at the time, wasn’t in tune with Frame despite having loved her writing since first reading her at 20. Evans’s wonderful novel has helped, and possibly so have my experiences over the last 18 months. Camping didn’t leave much time for reading so I’m still less than halfway through: oh, also, I temporarily put it aside, in the tent, for the more easily accessible stories in The Return by Roberto Bolano. (Must note here that Gifted is still burning in my consciousness.)

Side note: I read the first few paras of Pride and Prejudice on my new Kindle (!!!) this morning, just because it’s the only book on there at the moment, and while I’m determined to enjoy the Kindle (cheaper books, portability, special gift from my love, etc) my first five minutes of use freaked me out a little. I noticed myself reading very self-consciously, hearing my voice echo inside my head rather than, as I’ve been used to since childhood, the text bypassing any inner auditory sense and going directly to my understanding so that I seem to absorb the words rather than having to ‘read’ them. Also, I appreciate the choice of text sizes but am startled by the wide gaps between paragraphs and the frequency with which I have to turn the pages.

Written by Susan Pearce

March 27, 2011 at 3:56 am