Wednesday, 23 May 2007

A Risky Business

I am reading Al Alvarez's "Risky Business", his second set of collected essays (BUY IT!) and have just read his chapter on the concert pianist Alfred Brendel. Yesterday I posted an article "Rembrandt and Raymond Carver" and this morning the Brendel article goes to the same places. I feel an epiphany coming.

When I teach it is very intense. It's a commonplace reaction for writers on my courses to say their head has been turned to mush. More than one has been nervous about driving home (which is why we always suggest an evening dinner on the Sunday where we just laugh and chill.)

I usually say to writers that immediately after a course (ha, I typo'd CURSE, there!) that they may very well have difficulty writing, and if they do write, the writing may appear to be inferior for a while.

I liken it to going up a difficult, dangerous, mountain. Sometimes the route you are on cannot EVER get to the top. Sometimes you have to climb DOWN a little either to find a new route, or to get extra equipment, or maybe, to talk to a Sherpa Guide who knows the way.

That's only part of the problem!

I often say things like: "You must write totally, completely "on theme" where every word is building in the same way."

But I ALSO say, "But you must ignore the theme! Never write thinking of the theme." and I say, "Get the right characters, and the right opening voice, trust the characters to guard the theme."

But how can I force myself into the strictures of theme at the same time as ignoring the theme?

When discussing the writing art we often have to use the art of writing (I mean beyond competent journalism) to get closer, ever closer, to the meaning we are trying to impart. For example in my article "The Seventh Quark: Finding the story" I wrote that I, "Write with light hands."

What follows might be partly random (I hope so.)

In the Brendel article, Alvarez states, "One of the most important lessons Brendel taught Imogen Cooper was that there is a tension that goes all through a piece of music and never lets up. He used to talk of a long silver cord that one pulls on. "He'd crouch down beside the piano and say, 'Go on, pull, pull.'

Sometimes there is a little kink in the cord but it never sags. There's always a force irresistibly pulling it from the first note to the last."

THINK THEME, and the tension in a good voice.

"He used to say, 'You've got to get the audience from the first note.' I'd say you've got to get them from the moment you come through the door. How you command the space between the door and the piano makes the audience listen in a certain way. They listen with their eyes and their ears."

Think! Think about presentation. Think about fonts, font-size, single, double or 1.5 line spacing, white space for time-breaks, the size and boldness of the title, the use of italics for emphasis. Think how, the moment that editor or judge sits down with your piece. ALL of it matters.

You are trying to create "A mode of acceptance."

Think how the start shapes the whole. That's why I can predict the final score a story is worth from the opening. That is why 99% of editors and judge know as soon as they've read two paragraphs.

But remember I'm really talking about paradoxes in how I say we should write (if we want to write anything worthwhile.) Paradoxes, or apparent contradictions…

Brendel says performing is a risky business and the concert pianist who wants to make a work new each time he plays must live life dangerously. (Alvarez)

"As a performer, I have become aware of the paradox of my profession," Brendel said. "You have to be in control, and, at the same time, lose yourself completely. You have to think and feel in advance what you want to do and, simultaneously, to listen to what you are doing and react to that. You have to play to satisfy yourself and also play so that the people in the back row will get the message." In other words (Alvarez says) the concert platform is where his two worlds of intellectual control and inspired nonsense interconnect."

Are we talking genius here? No!

Of course Brendel is a genius, and Alvarez probably is a genius, but quality craftsmen have to go to this place also, the greatest sportsmen.

We train the body and the mind and then trust the spirit.

I always forget who for sure, but I think it was Harlan Ellison who said we must write and write and write and absorb technique until it runs in our blood.

It is when it's in our blood that we leave room for extra imagination, room for our angelic inner self to speak. Ray Bradbury (I'm pretty sure it was him) said we need to write a million crappy words just to start being a writer. That first million words is our scales, our music theory classes, our hours at the piano, our weekend courses in music, the summer schools, the endless rehearsals.

Then after the million, we start to find ourselves.

We no longer have to think about dialogue, or speech tags, or whether a noun-adjective here is needed for the flow and balance. It is part of us, the hands know where to go. If we apply thought now it's "beyond" it's expressive, it's extra.

Briefly, this is why I believe in the Boot Camp process. I believe that at least 99% of wanabee writers write far too little. In surveys I've done the average for writers at conferences was 147 words a day (and remember they are probably exaggerating their word-counts.)

(See Comment 1)

Stop RIGHT NOW and work out exactly (not roughly) how many creative words you have written this month. It is the 23rd of May 2007. If you haven't written 11,000 words, if you haven't written a paltry two pages a day, what the fuck are you doing? How can you call yourself a writer if you are writing the odd 200 words when the mood takes you?

Don't cheat. Don't cheat yourself. You are the one that gets hurt. What fresh work did you write yesterday? What fresh work did you produce on Monday? Did you have the weekend off? Were you going out to lunch Friday and never got into the mood? Was there a "really interesting" thread on some noddy web-site and you just had to get involved?

My recent favourite in a writing forum not a coffee-shop was "Favourite Handbag?"

Tell yourself the truth.

Officially, Boot Camp, right now, has twenty members. In fact it has 16 active, two away, two starting back in June. Usually you can presume that a couple more away with work or family commitments, illness, holidays and the like.

Yet we have posted 140 stories this year, probably the same amount of flashes and a fair few poems. Every story has been critiqued at least eight times (the average is about nine.) Every day we are arguing about craft, talking creative writing.

But Monday (part) and Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday-Friday we WRITE.

Excluding this work I have written

15 Poems (02,692 Words)
07 Flashes (06,211 Words)
04 Stories (07,813 Words)
07 Articles (17,785 Words)

34,501 Words in 22 Days
1,568 Words per day
10,977 Words a week

Today (not yet included) looks like being 3,000 words, an article and a flash.

Now this is not to tub-thump or blow a trumpet over my own hard work. The obvious response (always wrong) in that quantity is achieved at the expense of quality. Not so! Not so! And even if it were so, and from a month's work I got just a single story of quality (I mean real quality) that's 12 great stories a year.

But the millions of words I write have taught me a new language. I can move around tenses and Points of View, appear and disappear as a narrator, do tricks I never dreamt of when I began writing, stuff I couldn't do after five years.

At their own rate, on their own scales Boot Campers are doing the same thing.

They are first learning to speak so one day they will be able to sing.

Singing will mean insight, language, a fresh expression, depth of character.

But what is "depth"?

Quoting Alvarez on Brendel again:

Brendel thinks Beethove's last piano sonata, Op. 111, is a "premeditated conclusion, a last word leading into silence forever."

Discussing a performance of a complete cycle of Beethoven sonatas in Munich Alvarez talked of "depth" and then quoted Isiah Berlin.

"Depth is an odd word. It's a metaphor but you can't translate it into other terms. Depth means penetrating into something very basic in oneself, and touching it, and feeling an electric shock."

At the time Alvarez wrote, Brendel was suffering physical frailties which were beginning to restrict his playing. He was getting old, but still learning.

"One does not stop learning," Brendel said. "I've learned how to control certain silences. They depend not just on what you play but on how you look. After the last chord of Op. 111, I don't move. I don't take my hands away from the keyboard, because directly I stir, they applaud. Each time I play the Beethoven cycle the silence gets longer, because I know how to relate to it. I know how to sit still."

On Sitting Still

I once wrote an article (you can read it at The Internet Writers Journal) called Theme Music: Tone is Not an Accident.

NOW, it's not. But when I began writing, long after I was being regularly published, there was tone over here, character over there, and a bit of plot somewhere if I can just find it, and the all important theme which was down the shops buying cigarettes but would be back in five minutes.

Tone is not an accident, not for an experienced writer. Nor is theme, and yet the best writers, those with the strongest, most gut-wrenching or intellectually invigorating themes, can write without worrying about their theme. How?


When we begin to get a feeling that a story is coming. I should add here I mean real writing not superficial trivia with a "clever" twist-ending, or that womag bumph or intricately-plotted shoot-em-up, or Dan Brown. I mean writing that matters a little, right now, writing that we return to, dwell in, savour.

When we begin to get a feeling that this kind of story is coming, what happens? If you get an idea, a plot-line, some clever tricks to post here and here and here, then I'm sorry for you. Oh, you might well publish. You might even be flavour of the six months, but you won't be writing.

What about the feeling, what about the ache?

What about that sense of pressure, of something deep in you or way back in time, or maybe some part of your life that only makes sense if you don't ask it questions? Don't you want to know who you are? Why you're here?

Don't you want to know what this is all about?

If we use the brain exclusively – I mean the logical left-brain, the bit we plan with, we cannot get "fresh", we cannot get "insightful". Instead we get the same old same old. It might be re-jigged (if we are really crafty) but it's still the same old. The active left-brain doesn't put things together that don't belong together.

The active left, interfering brain doesn't write:

I used to sit in the hall and stare at the geese on the wall, fascinated because one was chipped and had a white chalk beak. I am not sure I know what love is.

Because all those boring shapers, the life-police, told you that plaster of Paris ducks are nothing to do with "love". If you try to write that paragraph it doesn't happen. You have to let a better, more dangerous, more unpredictable person write it.

If we aren't using the left-brain. If we learn to sit still and let things rise up and emerge, those things are always better, truer, than what we do deliberately.

Think, most importantly about the many constituents of an opening. There is a setting, a tone, a voice, a level of complexity of language, a "colour", a timbre, probably a narrator, a character or characters, some air of musicality.

Where did they come from? Did you sit down with a team of advertising executives and Simon Cowell, and "thrash this thing out"?

Did you go to some stainless city office and listen to a Powerpoint presentation on the commercial viability of the darker character?

Or did something come to you?

If something comes to you, just comes, if you have feelings, these are the things, the powerful things that will matter. But you have to stand aside, trust the spirit, allow the souls of your ancestors if you like, allow the angels and demons to create.

Instead off grabbing at, or "considering", instead of planning why not ask (without asking) what's here, who is she, what does she sound like, what language does she speak? Stay low, don't frighten the visitor. She may have been in the dark for a long time.

This woman, this girl, this gift is incredible. You ask, how can I not control and yet write a controlled work? Surely it's impossible?

Of course, without help. But you have help. Look! She stands there, slightly bewildered. But all she wants is the tiniest of nudges and she will talk, exactly as you imagined, she will act in a way that always seems right, and because she came without force and emerged as a welcome visitor (from another place in you) she will now look after your theme.

Let me be boringly "straight" for a minute. Presume, temporarily, that what I say is true. We have a feeling about a subject. Maybe it's "something" about the cruelty of childless couples here, contraceptive abortions over there. It feels wrong, somehow but it's not as simple as believing abortion is always wrong, and not merely a rant against God. You feel the complexity of the issue, you almost feel you can express it, but it's so hard.

Then one day an abortion clinic is burned down and a passing child is killed. How confused? Or you read of a child who did not abort and is now a famous concert pianist. Something uncaps the ache. You need to say something.

I realise all this seems vague, but it's only "vague" because most of our lives we deal in greater certainties (which are false) and things which we believe are solid (when they are not.)

If you deliberately "take on" these issues, you are not going to access your deep feelings. You are going to access the front of the drawer where sound-bytes and simple fixes are kept.

I wrote a story once when I realised that my socks and underwear drawers each contain maybe fifty items, yet only the front five or ten are used, washed and re-worn. Think of the back of that drawer. We should be accessing it. Most of the time we live in the nearby, the simple, the quick and superficial.

So, instead of diving in, what happens if you close your eyes and see if anybody walks by? What might happen? A young girl who's pregnant? Her mother who's also pregnant? How about the unborn child or the recently aborted? I have no idea, because HERE I'm conscious, talking to you.

If you relax you might see a red sports car, a Frisbee, a line of Keats, and yet know they all combine and say something about abortion. If you learn to be still, someone will step forward.

If you learn to be still, someone will step forward, and that someone knows your point, she simply knows. If deep in you, despite what you might say publicly, something nags and says "wrong, wrong, wrong" you will NOT choose a real character who argues right, right, right.

Your inner self chooses the vehicle of expression. Think how often, when characters have just come, they feel known to you, like old acquaintances.

When I talk metaphorically I say that these characters are guardians of the theme. If they are spontaneous manifestations then they champion a real theme. If they are forced characters they are crude, obvious vessels for an obvious theme, and very probably the story will read like a polemic.

Damn! It's 12:30 and I have things to do.

OK let's try another tack.

When I see a set of flash-prompts posted that look "clever" and conscious, cold, cute. I expect less flashes to be written and a lower standard of story.

But when I see a load of lines or part-lines from great poems, a few odd break-the-spell words (the more bizarre the better) I expect more stories and better ones. The mere resonance and open-endedness of the poetic snatches seems to "set-off" the unconscious. Something is stirred.

That is, poetry and its effects are disorientating, mysterious, they come at us by entering through the foot or the elbow and bat us round the inner ear because they can. No frontal assault needed.

I believe that it's this subversive, playful, unusual "accent" in poetry that tends to release wilder (from the unconscious) emotions in those who read the prompts. Thus the resulting work is better.

We live in an age where we are inundated by clevernesses, but the very glibness and ease of these cute sound-bytes, the sit-com quips, the quick-fix knee-jerk, the tabloid headline crap (even Panorama cheats now), the pre-planned endings (but if you don't like the film's finish, we'll change it)… an age where shallowness is all. We escape by going under.

Billy Collins said: Poetry seems to provide, more than ever, an alternative to the din of public language (advertising, politics, etc) and a more admirable set of values than we find in consumer-mad society. I read recently about a poetry competition held in Barcelona every year. The third place poet receives a silver rose, the second place winner receives a golden rose, and the first place poet – for having written the very best poem – receives a real rose. So take that, all you fans of bling.

Arthur Polotnik said:

You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what's burning inside you. You edit to let the fire show through the smoke.

The point of this ramble is that to write about what's burning inside, we need to allow it air, to stand aside and let it burn us up. We have to learn to stand aside, be still, listen. We have to, though, trust our writing ability, which is why we must write, write, write, every day, every week, every month, so we can turn off consciousness. And then:

Somewhere, I know not exactly where, a grey campfire is kicked up, the flames catch again and are let loose. All catches alight.


The Boot Camp Diaries said...

Briefly, this is why I believe in the Boot Camp process. I believe that at least 99% of wanabee writers write far too little. In surveys I've done the average for writers at conferences was 147 words a day (and remember they are probably exaggerating their word-counts.)

I should be clearer! I mean, when I ask at conferences (and these are committed writers) they report that over the past weeks/moth they have written an average of 147 words a day or 1,029 a week.

At the conference they usually write nowt.

Lexie said...

I heard Brendel play in Edinburgh in the early 70s, and it really was a risky business. He'd just returned to performing after a breakdown, and he came in looking frail, shaky, totally un-together. But once he started playing it was as if the music was pulling him along rather than vice versa. It felt like it was a combined force of will by the audience that got him through the first piece.

I believe he's mainly self-taught, and isn't he a poet as well? I wonder if any of his poetry's on the net.

The Boot Camp Diaries said...

Blind Stag*

All things are connected, I think. I keep feeling Big G is going to tap me on the shoulder and say time's up.

But he CAN'T. I'm just about to get a hang of things.

* No Eye Deer

Lexie said...

Good God. I can't imagine EVER getting to the beginning of the long road where I'd be able to see a glimmer of the hang of things from the other end.

If you ever got the hang of things you'd die of boredom.

Isn't it curiosity that keeps people young? Like deciding to enter your painting childhood now, and see everything through a pair of fresh eyes ...