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Paradiso or Inferno? Writers on writing


Imre Kertesz (above) found writing an angst-ridden struggle but James Michener (below) relished every syllable

I’ve just started writing a new play after a fallow year spent licking my wounds when a promising commission failed to materialise into a theatrical production. I know, I’m too thin skinned; finding time to write has also been my greatest problem: when you work and have a family, time slips by before you know it. Of course, this is a convenient excuse. Why not get up two hours earlier and write before work? How about stopping writing this blog and turning out four pages of dialogue instead? The fact is, for me journalism and blog posts are fun, flow easily and I love sharing them, but I find creative writing tough going. I’ll make any excuse – even doing the ironing, for crying out loud, a job I loathe, rather than sitting down in front of that anxiety-producing blank page.

It made me wonder about other writers’ procrastination techniques, and their attitude to writing. Years ago, I interviewed the playwright Tom Stoppard for my university magazine and he told me that although he loved the rush of adrenalin when his writing was pouring out of him, the hardest thing for him was to get started. “I’ll do anything to avoid sitting down at my desk”, he said. “I’ll drink five cups of coffee. I’ll read the paper. If I really want to avoid writing, I’ll even clean my tennis shoes!”

He’s not alone, but not all writers  hesitate. Some relish the act of creation. “I love writing”, said James Michener. “I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.”  For writers with a strong ego like Saul Bellow, writing was a manifestation of self-belief and “You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.”  Similarly, Martin Amis refutes the idea of the struggling writer and the pain of writer’s block, stating he follows a “throb, a glimmer, an act of recognition” that turns, inevitably, into a novel.  For John Barth, the creative muse is awoken following an intriguing ritual which includes filling his Parker fountain pen, opening up a 40 year-old ring-bind folder and inserting crisp pages of lined paper and wearing wax earplugs to banish external noise. Writers are also notoriously superstitious. In the delightful film Shakespeare in Love, Shakespeare rubs his quill between his hands, spits three times and practises his signature before writing Act I of Romeo and Juliet. We can only guess if he did this, of course, but we do know Roald Dahl used to rug up to write in his freezing garden shed in the depths of winter because only when he felt uncomfortable did his imagination roam freely. To each his own.

Writing is a hard task master, an unforgiving mistress. “You must write every single day of your life”, Ray Bradbury urges us sternly. (He obviously never got up at 2am to feed a crying baby, nor spent a day with a sick toddler who vomits every half hour.) Sometimes, your best intentions go by the wayside. “I love deadlines”, quips Douglas Adams in The Salmon of Doubt. “I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” As  Ernest Hemingway put it with characteristic terseness: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

If only there was a blueprint to follow, things might be easier, but W Somerset Maugham dashes even this faint hope: “There are three rules for writing a novel”, he asserts. “Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”  Even the prolific Neil Gaiman recognises the frequent futility of the task. “Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of a job”, he muses. “It’s always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins… This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.”  The outcome is always uncertain and you’ll probably agree with Michael Cunningham that “one always has a better book in one’s mind than one can manage to get onto paper.”  You only hope you’ll avoid writing the kind of novels, as Charles Dickens observes in Oliver Twist, “of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.”

So why stick pins in yourself? Are all writers stark, raving mad? Yes, says George Orwell. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”  As for Imre Kertész, whenever he sat down to write, “it felt like a tragic fate I had to endure.”   Again, Hemingway recognises the folly of the writing process. “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Still, when the work is completed, there’s a definite feeling of satisfaction and relief.  “I hate writing”, Dorothy Parker confides, “I love having written.” And then maybe, just maybe, you might have made a difference. “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,” advises Toni Morrison.  After all, as Ishmael Reed notes wisely – “no-one says a novel has to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o’clock news, the mumblings of wild men saddled by demons.”

Back to the drawing board. I’ve run out of excuses. I’d better crack on with Scene 4. To quote Neil Gaiman once more: “Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing days nothing else matters.”


PREPARE TO BE SURPRISED: the-oh-so-strange world of Donald Barthelme


I confess to being a latecomer to the work of Donald Barthelme. I had read other American classic humourists such as SJ Perelman and HL Mencken but Barthelme somehow slipped through the net. It’s no wonder: Barthelme is very hard to pin down – he can be laugh-out-loud funny one moment, deeply satirical the next, completely absurd or philosophically dense, often in the space of two or three paragraphs. Two storylines exemplify this perfectly: in the first, King Kong, now a professor of art history, climbs through a window to join a drinks party; in the second, the nonsense poet Edward Lear invites friends and acquaintances to witness his death. Reading is not necessarily believing; in Barthelme what you see is not what you get; and what you get can alter almost mystically after a re-read.

Confused? Good. No-one said that reading Barthelme would be easy. I’ve just come up for air after immersing myself in his Sixty Stories for the past month and only now feel ready both to put these thoughts down and to tackle his novels. Writing on Barthelme requires assiduous preparation and a big dose of humility: he has an encyclopaedic grasp of matters temporal and spiritual and he’s widely and deeply read. However, an enlightening interview Barthelme gave The Paris Review in 1981, eight years before his death, which you can read here,  is a good starting point.

It’s almost a relief to acknowledge Barthelme as the quintessential post-modernist. And though such terms usually make me squirm, in his case the nomenclature fits like a glove. How else to explain the mish-mash of styles in different authorial voices, the sorties into slapstick and Existentialism, the quick-fire dialogue that melds into Joycean monologue? If Barthelme was a painter, he’d have to be Magritte, the wicked teaser with the dark underside, the trickster who makes you blink and think twice. And if he were a playwright, then he’d be Tom Stoppard, early on in his career (Stoppard serendipitously wrote a play called After Magritte), where startling, absurd sequences of events are presented to the bemused spectator, only to be revealed as completely logical by the final curtain.

So, to the stories. Or fables. Or pastiches. In Me and Miss Mandible, a 35 year-old man, mysteriously returned to his high school self, contemplates making love to his teacher and assiduously records the progress of his seduction in an elegantly written journal, while tackling fractions and geography. It’s wicked, subversive, supremely funny in a dark and dangerous way. Is it a dream, an adult fantasy? Its power lies in the way the narrative captures and reflects on childhood events from an adult perspective, rather than the absurdity of the situation.

The narrator in I Bought a Little City, however, is more forceful and dynamic. He happily buys the city of Galveston, Texas and then proceeds to change the landscape and infrastructure bit by bit to suit his whims. You can read it as a satirical take on urbanisation and the destructiveness of town planning, nor is the underlying premise of being able to buy a city so far-fetched when you consider the power of today’s mega-sized development groups. In fact, although written in the 1970s, the fable seems almost horribly prescient.

In a complete change of tone, The King of Jazz deftly mimics the riffing of jazz musicians, vying with each other in the rehearsal studio. The story reads like an improv session, setting out a melody, a refrain, a spotlight on a solo and then back to the original theme, all conducted in fast-paced dialogue.

One of my favourite stories, Margins, presents Carl and Edward, two dead-beats living on the fringes of society, as they wander through the streets of Manhattan. Their deeply philosophical and ridiculous dialogue recalls the tramps Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. There is a great deal of Beckett in Barthelme –snatches of vaudeville gleam through existential darkness – and there’s a great deal of Nabokov too, in his carefully chosen language, his word play, his authorial voice of linguist and savant.

Where, though, do you draw the line between being clever and too clever by half? Sometimes, I feel the balance is tipped against Barthelme. It would certainly be helpful to have an understanding of 19th and early 20th century philosophy before reading his story Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel – otherwise how do you get the joke? But just as you’re about to wag a finger and chastise Barthelme for unreasonable obscurity, back he comes with The Sandman, a deliciously accessible send-up of psychoanalysis, in which a lover writes to his girlfriend’s shrink proposing she give up her counselling sessions and concentrate on her relationship instead.

Go with the flow. Let Barthelme’s language and surrealism wash over you. Experience him like music, dive into in his bizarre universe. It’s definitely worth it. And it’s one hell of a ride.