Novel Writing Archive

Blog, Novel Writing, Writing

Working with outlines, doing away with time

6896054295_22c4a258fc_zThe other day I said I’d go and meet H at 1230. We arranged this a couple of hours earlier. There was no fixed reason why 1230, other than I thought it would be a good time, and I’d be hungry for lunch.

When the time came around, I was not quite finished what I was working on, or had done the chores I’d wanted to do–reactivate my library card, borrow Tim Birkhead’s Bird Sense–but the 1230 deadline loomed over me to the point where I began to get uptight about it. H was going nowhere. She was in her studio making stuff. There was nothing we had to be at or go to afterwards. 1230 was not precious. And yet I’d made it so–a strict appointment that it would be awful to miss.

For some reason, that day, I began to question why this was. Perhaps because we’d talked earlier in the week about what irked us more, someone being late or someone running an event, giving a talk, etc, overunning at the end into your time. (Note: for me, the latter.) Or perhaps it was because we’d set the time to meet only two hours ahead, and so its complete arbitrariness was more apparent. But essentially it dawned on me, as it has not before, that this was an ingrained pattern, nothing to do with my conscious or rational understanding of what in fact was in front of us. It was something highly emotional, charged, and hidden. That is: something from my childhood.

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Novel Writing, Writing

The vague feeling of love

(A short exercise in “putting the problem into the writing” based on a character from my novel.)

emotionally vagueThe vague feeling of love

And he knew somehow that the vague feeling was not love itself but only the thoughts he had about love, which is why it was not a true feeling, what the analyst William James was calling a primary emotion, but rather just a thought about it, masquerading as the real thing, for where the real thing ought to be, he supposed, was an absence. Thought loves a vacuum.

And yet what this vague feeling was, was definitely a feeling – he felt it, even if his feeling processes were disordered, and to feel it he had to see it as a fantasy, a story inside his head on the cinema screen that ran just inside his brow (and how did people imagine thoughts before the cinema?). Were thoughts not feelings too?

He knows they could be the interpretation of the feeling anyway. That was it. An interpretation. And quite simply he had not yet fully translated the affect, the energy he felt for her, into a story he could make sense of. That’s why it remained vague, like the ideas he would put into his writing – and why this sense of love, or love as a possibility, or more precisely, not love, but simply her, Marine, as the symbol of possibility, was so closely linked, in its vagueness, to writing as a process. Both were processes in formation. Both began as fantasy in the mind. Both had a number of possible outcomes, from the utopian (publication, marriage, sensualness, fame) to the disastrous, and then worse than the disastrous, the absent, the never-happened.

It was perhaps why he had so many relationships with women that ended rather badly—and also why so far his writing had not brought him the life he desired, and knew—or at least idealised that it would or could bring him. He would rather leap into the relationship with a new lover who had entered his fantasies than forego the chance of it ever happening. That loss—the loss of the fantasy constructed in his head—was too difficult to bear. The real loss—of the girl, of the love, of the relationship, was much easier to let go, although not altogether painless. It was also why perhaps much of his work had not yet found its way into print. He was too indiscriminate. He jumped into ideas before he was committed to them, and then his energies waned, and he let the stories go, unfinished, unpolished. He did not let go easily ideas that were not his to write. Rather, he wanted everything he thought to become real. This was the boundless child, he knew, who was magical, and at the centre of his world.

Although no, that was not true. Not totally true. Rather love and writing to him seemed complementary, or opposite in their attraction. Although, yes, the thought that they stemmed from the same source, seemed to him to be true. It all began with the imagined ideal, it all began with thinking “what if?” and then conjuring up scenarios.

Was that writing? Yes.

Was that also love?

The vague feeling returned. As did Marine with a coffee pot and two cups.

(c) Image via Emotionally Vague

40before40, Novel Writing, Writing Blog

Talking about your work

A fair few months ago I had a conversation with a colleague about my novel. I’d just finished the piece for submission to the PhD, but was not happy with the final work. I was grumbling about it, when my colleague suggested I needed to find in it the things I still liked about it, because if I was now to not only finish a novel but become a professional and published novelist I would have to talk about the book, many times, over and over, to hundreds of audiences, online and offline, in bookshops and presentations.

In many ways this talk was the most useful piece of advice I’d had as a writer (one ‘for’ the Kureshi camp… more on this later). It showed me, rather starkly, that the book was not finished, not until I could find what in it really mattered to me. Really mattered.

But it was a lesson I thought about this week as I had the chance to speak to or hear other artists and writers talk about their work.

James-MaskreyFirst, I had the pleasure of meeting the glass artist James Maskrey. He works at the National Glass Centre, and makes glass works that tell the story of exploration, especially the early 20th century Antarctic explorations of Scott et al. His work takes images, motifs and a huge amount of research and creates, mainly pieces such as bottles, glasses, and pieces that evoke the materiality of the exploration, and that capture the bareness of the Antarctic, the simplicity of the attempts (and the kit they had to make those attempts), and the clarity of the hopes and ambitions of the men on the journeys.

What I enjoyed, most of all, however, was taking a back seat and listening to how James spoke about his work. He talked with a great deal of passion about the subject matter, and the research process. It’s a process that Maile Chapman and Joanna Skibsrud both write about with luscious delight in Karen Stevens’ new edited collection Writing a First Novel. Particularly for Chapman, whose essay comes in the ‘Research’ section of the book (Skibsrud’s essay is in ‘Inspiration’ but clearly they are linked). All three – Maskrey on glass, Chapman and Skibsrud on writing – talked about the research process as the work. As the playwright Ishy Din also does – it’s the research process, the asking questions, the ‘What If?’ scenarios, that are the work of the artist, the discovering of stories that are already there, says David Swann in the same book, rather than stories you are making up on your own.

What I enjoyed about Celia Bryce’s talk at the First Thursday event last week, hosted by NCLA, was her detailed knowledge and passion for the work itself, the finished book, and how all of her research went into and shaped the craft of her writing. What impressed me most was this energy and love she felt for the story even after eleven years of writing the book (between beginning and publishing). For Skibsrud it was about seven years. (Anne Enright, in the Radio 4 short on ‘Failure’ last week, bemoaned a friend who tried writing a novel but gave up after a year. A year! she exclaimed. That’s not even getting started.)

Bryce spoke with clarity about the process of writing her novel Anthem for Jackson Dawes, and the emotional impact of the novel, about young teens with cancer, felt very much alive in her relationship to her book. That’s the question I wanted to ask here, before time ran out: where had she kept the book, both physically and emotionally, to be able to maintain the passionate relationship she clearly had with the work, for such a long time? Because, in my quest to answer this question — how can we work better as writers? — this question of the huge amount of time it takes to create – ‘of love and longevity’, you might call it — is central to the ability to produce something original. It is the final failure of Clive Linsey in Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, that he runs out of the passion and energy to complete his final masterpiece; the rest of the world, and his selfishness, anger and meanness with the rest of the world, get in the way, and he fails to complete.

So I’m hoping Celia Bryce might drop by here and respond. (It’s possible also why McEwan writes such short novels. No more than novellas, really).

How do I talk about my work? The actual pieces, as well as the process? I guess I talk about the process more easily–and it’s half the reason why I write these blog posts, because talking about the process is for me a passion, unearthing the mechanisms of mind and creativity, my own and others. Creativity is itself a subject matter, even if the process of process can feel, at times, self-involved and solipsistic.

How do I talk about the product, the output? I often talk about the pieces I write in thematic terms (about psychology, about emotion, about process). What I tend to do less is talk about characters, which is what Bryce did, as do the authors writing in Stevens’ Writing a First Novel. David Swann’s piece on his debut novel, about Mollie and Tom, is an excellent case in point — how does he combine the monologues of his two characters? Although the novel is about large themes, what Swann discusses are the voices of his characters. Bryce spoke about Kipper, Megan and Jackson, to tell us about cancer, loss and love as they occur in her novel.

And in Maskrey’s glasswork, he spoke about the characters–Shackleton, Scott, and the objects as colourful as characters, the bottles, the ships, the kava kava–as if these were his subjects.

It has come this week as a very powerful lesson about my writing, and how I work, that only on a few occasions do I get that close to character to be able to tell the story through my connection with them. It was in fact where my novel began–with Marine, my editor–but drifted off course while learning the crafts of plot, structure and storytelling. My supervisor was trying to bring me back to character, but there was something about my idealisation of writing, about the process of process, in fact, that made it easier for me to think about, and focus on, theme.

But even I now tell my students not to write about theme. And not, as Hemingway says, to write about characters either. There are no characters. There are people. Write about them. (Animals are people too, I need to tell myself, because I write a lot about animals.)

So: how you talk about your work says a lot about your relationship to that work, and about how fully realised that work is, perhaps.

A closing note as recommendation of Stevens’ new book, Writing a First Novel. Definitely recommended, except for the really disappointing decision to include a Hanif Kureshi extract from 2002 as the opening essay. Even before Kureshi-Gate hit the newspapers and blogs last week, I was wandering around thinking what an arrogant twat the man is–and has always been, in regards to other writers. His essay in the book of course makes some pertinent generalisations that remain true today for writers, but it is done with an arrogance and pithiness that is distasteful. Also, written in 2002, there is something in the tone or atmosphere of Kureshi’s argument that does not stand up to time, but feels very jaded and misplaced alongside the much more humble, insightful and personal essays. Read David Swann, David Vann, Jane Feaver, and listen to their wisdoms, and read Tim Clare’s excellent response about the power of good teaching in creative writing, but ignore Kureshi’s essay; he offers nothing new, and perhaps will never offer anything new again.


So it’s been a week where my challenge to complete a 40×40 list of tasks in creating a utopia of writer’s habits really has fed directly into my world of professional writing. I met James Maskrey in my goal to meet 40 new people, at the same time contributing to my aim of learning about 40 new pieces of art; and I rushed out of the house to see Celia Bryce talk as part of my goal of attending 40 talks/events. When I first posted the list a number of people felt it was overstretching myself, but so many of the tasks (listening to new music; watching short films) I’ve already adopted as new, and stimulating, habits into my everyday life, and which feel incredibly enriching for both peace of mind and the imaginative life. Long may the long list continue!

Novel Writing, Writing Blog

Blog Hop: The Novel

Thanks to Em Strang ( for tagging me in the BLOG HOP.

What is the working title of your book? Obelisque

Where did the idea come from for the book? Back in 2007 I was getting interested in neuroscience and what seemed to the growing fascination with the ways in which we are or are not in control of our own behaviours and, particularly, our emotions. I read Antonio Damasio’s Descartes’ Error and picked up on the story of Professor Antonio Egas Moniz, who in 1935 invented the leucotomy, the forerunner of the lobotomy, as a way to control affective disorders in the mentally ill. It was an arrogant, unresearched and often lethal medical procedure with no scientific credibility, and yet people succumbed to the idea of so easily controlling theirs (usually others’) emotions and mental pain.

My novel is a fictional interlude into the world of the 1930s and the rise of, on the one hand, therapeutic and psychoanalytic narratives, and on the other, this new form of psychosurgery invented by Moniz. It is basically a medical ‘love’ story, or tug of war, between two doctors over one patient who has to decide if she wants to ‘fix’ her erratic emotions, and if so, which method she is going to choose.

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40before40, Novel Writing, Writing Blog

Modelling the books

I am in love with words and books and stories. One of the greatest frustrations is a bad book, or a book I cannot connect with, that steals not only time but the hope of experience, gives me only disappointment, lets me down.*

old penguinsI learn so much from books. I have an idea floating around for a book loosely based on life-coaching from some of my favourite authors, such as Marion Milner, Franz Kafka, Henry Miller, and it’s a craving for a book I want to read that is not satisfied by the disappointing The Novel Cure, which tackles 751 different life problems, but does so as wry compendium and lacks emotion and narrative, within individual entries and the book overall. As Shakespeare and the Greeks well knew, you cannot captivate a heart without narrative. It is how Sinon fools the Trojans; how Othello convinces the Senate. Why did the authors of The Novel Cure, who obviously love literature, not spot the weakness in their structure?

It is, however, an impressive guide to writer-guides. The list of writers who I turn to, who have given me so much, is written in a similar way to Alice Walker’s list at the end of her essay ‘Saving the life that is your own’. She notes and gives thanks to Zora Hurston, Jean Toomer, Colette, Anaïs Nin, Tillie Olson, Virginia Woolf, for providing her with the models for how to write, and how to live. The end of her list reads like this:

 Tillie Olson—a writer of such generosity and honesty, she literally saves lives;
Virginia Woolf—who has saved so many of us.

It is, in the end, the saving of lives that we writers are about. Whether we are “minority” writers or “majority”. It is simply in our power to do this. We do it because we care […] We care because we know this: the life we save is our own.

It has taken some time and some re-reading to understand what Walker is saying. Because the saving of lives is not in the physical sense.

But it is in the psychological and political sense: books do save, change lives. The psychologist (or rather un-psychologist) Steve Thorp calls Alice Walker ‘an “integral” practitioner: an activist, a novelist, a poet, essayist – her work combines psychological and political understanding with a poetic and ecological sensibility.’ The saving of a life can be the saving of this thing you are living, rather than the body you’re living it with. To save one from sleepwalking, from attachments to ways of living that are bad for you (e.g. fantasies of ‘the good life’, ‘the American dream’). As Lauren Berlant puts it, the route to the ‘good life’ sold to us is often a rut, but between the routinized rut and the cracks that drop into nowhere, you stay in your rut. The saving of a life that Walker talks about is the life of the imagination. It is about taking us out of the rut, and imagining better worlds (for ourselves, others).

How do we do this if not with imagination? If not with art?

It is why, in her essay, when asked the question what is the difference between white and black writers, she sees black writers always aiming towards a larger freedom. It is a political and psychological freedom that white writers, says Walker, having never been enslaved or oppressed, need not chase. Or as the African-American writer Terry McMillan puts it: ‘This writing stuff saved me. Writing is my shelter.’

Writing books to be read. What got Jonathan Franzen ‘back on track as a writer’ after struggling with the realisation that his books had failed to ‘culturally engage’ an audience and that, he was coming to see, the novel no longer played an important role in the cultural life of Americans, was reading. Or, to be precise, readers, of which he was also one.

Franzen quotes the work of Shirley Brice Heath,whose work is now very out of date as she researched enforced transit zones, such as airports, where people had no access to popular culture such as TV or much music, which is a time forever gone to us now, with the smart phone; she also got it wrong that ‘the computer will never replace a book’ now we have the I-Pad and Kindle, which gives to the computer the ‘substance’ that book readers crave.

For Heath, there are two kinds of readers, those who modelled themselves on at least one parent, and those who are ‘social isolates’ who become, in fact, hypersocial (hyper sensitive to sociality, rather than antisocial) and who find in books the people, characters, and world with which they can communicate. Reading, then, is an act of imaginary communication. And these types are much more likely to become writers. As Heath said to Franzen: “you are a socially isolated individual who desperately wants to communicate with a substantive imaginary world.”

For Franzen this is no stinging criticism. It is exhilarating. “Simply to be recognised for what I was, simply not to be misunderstood: these had revealed themselves, suddenly, as reasons to write.”

I want to take Walker’s words from her essay and look for how they could work as a model for my own writing, and life. Walker explores the works of black women, and from these writers (not only these, also men, also white women) begins to create a body of work that helps her understand her role as a writer, and as an integral practitioner of what it means to be human. She writes about the experiences of black women because these are her experiences. But she also writes about universal human experiences, and nonhuman relations.

I am trying to work out that model for being someone who is being pressed to write, or think about, or work in the field of animal / nonhuman suffering and oppression. But I am not a cow, or a pig, or a chicken, or a dolphin or orca taken from the wild and held captive. I cannot write ‘as’ one of them. So how can I write? Two things to think about:

  • What or who can I write ‘as’ – what is my personal story that, as Jonathan Franzen urges us to do, connects to the collective and social?
  • Who are the models I can draw upon who write about and for animals, either as novelists, poets, anthropologists, ethologists, essayists…

In the margins of my Alice Walker book I’ve written down a couple of things, scratched out of letters in the urgency of wanting to say something. I’ve written ‘Earthlings’ – it’s the 2005 film narrated by Joaquin Phoenix. It is also the collective for what we all are—animals, living beings, connected by this one planet. So this is one thing I can write ‘as’. Another is as a person who feels empathy for those nonhuman animals who suffer through living hells for our taste preferences, our meat and dairy addictions. Does it matter if I write in forms other than fiction to tell these stories? Can I also tell them through fiction and literature (which might include poetry, plays, essays)?

There’s a third question to add to that list. As Jonathan Franzen puts its in his essay collection How to Be Alone, ‘Why Bother?’ with writing? Why write at all, if it changes nothing? If it does not culturally engage in a time of rapid gratification and shallow narrative? (And if you just want to see a really powerful ripping up and annotation of a book, visit this Vice article.)

Alice Walker answers that question—or rather, puts forward Toni Morrison’s answer—in her essay. Write to bring into the world the books you want to read. Or, as Walker takes it a little further, she writes the books that ‘I should have been able to read.’ She is talking about the books of black women, of black history, of black anthropology. As she was striking out to write a story (inspired by her mother) on black women’s experience and voodoo, the only books she could find on this rich experience of religion and the mystical in black women’s lives were written by white men. Until she found Zora Hurston, that is. And when she found Zora, she found that other critically important thing for a writer (for anyone): a model.

And if there aren’t that many models out there? Be as Toni Morrison—as Walker says of her, “She must do the work of two. She must be her own model as well as the artist attending, creating, learning from, realizing the model, which is to say, herself.”

As Walker explains, finding a model is how you learn ‘to be alone’ (‘be a writer’); by realising that, when you write well, you’re not alone at all: “I had that wonderful feeling writers get sometimes, not very often, of being with a great many people, ancient spirits, all very happy to see me consulting and acknowledging them, and eager to let me know, through the joy of their presence, that, indeed, I am not alone.”


And so what was achieved in my week for the 40×40 utopia of writer’s habits? A whole day yesterday feeling overwhelmed and excited with the success of being awarded a Winston Churchill Travel Scholarship. But I still this week found time to meet someone new (Bev, a poet, from the PhD), listen to Hammock’s Departure Songs, watch two short films, The Heat and The Poodle Trainer, I also made two table arrangements for my friend A’s wedding, saw the great poet Douglas Dunn perform at NCLA, sent two valentine’s cards, bought a present (a DVD writer) for my friend K, and committed two hours practice to my newfound love for Pilates.

Already, for a writer, I am feeling the benefits of this ‘practice of doing things’, developing this utopia of ordinary habit, as Ann Cvetkovich calls it. Especially in two areas where I’ve always avoided giving my time—in listening to music and watching film. I’ve always seen both as a waste of my time before, or at least something I don’t find much pleasure in. But it’s not true—and it’s only ‘true’ because of early patterns as a kid of not wanting to be like my sister, who spent all her time watching films and listening to music. I wanted to be different, and so ruled out so many pleasurable acts and moments to find my own path.

Isn’t it funny, as the Jungian analyst James Hollis puts it, that the preferences we are so convinced are ours are often not ours at all? And then what do we do? As Steve Thorp put it just this weekend in his new five-minute read:

The aim must be for each of us to develop into elegant, radiant selves, and join to build communities of love, mutuality and connection. The way we can do this is to wake up, to remove the reductionist shackles of our culture’s psychology, to set out on our own path – however mad and wild we might seem to others – and trust that the journey will, in time, be one we can all share.

 *As a note, these ‘disappointing books’ are often award-winning or shortlisted, such as Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies. I really don’t care about the characters in that book at all, and yet it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, possibly for its faux Woolf style. And Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, a very well written book, but short of depth, for all its plotting and emphasis on the astrological archetypes, which barely play a role in the novel at all. What begins as a wonderfully told story peters out into nothing but plot. By the end, we’re left with a hundred pages where we already know everything that’s happened, a clichéd resolution—the fallen woman saved by love (h/t to the writer Viccy Adams for pointing that out. Maybe the disappointment with these books has something to do with raised expectations due to the award/shortlisting? Perhaps.

Image of old Penguins (cc) Beat Ink

Activism, Novel Writing, The Fire Bible, VB40, Writing

World Vegan Day (of the Dead)

“If you could plant one seed,” David asks Esther, “what would it be?”

He didn’t mean the seed of a vegetable or flower; but he suppose he might have, and that she would respond like that. She was always far more literal than he was. Her favourite joke was the one where a woman, after being with her boyfriend for two years, asked him, “Should we talk about the future?” And he replies, “what, you mean flying cars and things?” Even though for them it was the other way round. David was always the one worried about the future.

It was November 1st. It used to be the day before his birthday, when they remembered birthdays, when then was still a calendar. David carries an old almanac and records the passage of days in it. It was also World Vegan Day, he remembers suddenly, when there was collective action, when there were vegans, when there was something that resembled a world into which celebrations or commemorations could be brought to mind, with some conjuring of pleasure, peace. World Vegan Day. It made no sense any more.

“Any seed,” she says. She is thinking. She has crossed her legs and is pointing her toes. Beyond her the tall pines are swaying in a light wind that has picked up suddenly. He sniffs the air for scents, human, animal. There is only the sap.

“It doesn’t have to be literal,” he says. He is thinking all of a sudden of an article he read once, by an academic he used to like, someone who wrote about animals, he read it, he realises, exactly on this date, November 1st, many years ago. He was an academic then. He had begun to care. And then it all got fucked up anyway, and the world collapsed, but he’d been caught caring and it stuck, like that old childhood scare story of pulling a face one too many times and it sticking.

“The tasks we perform to reproduce our biological existence are all politically and culturally relevant,” wrote the academic James Stanescu, in his article. “What food to eat and how to eat it, what shelters to build and how to arrange them, what clothes to wear and when to wear them: these are markers or culture; these are all markers of the political.”

And he thought at the time–and what about who to love and how to love them? Who to communicate with and how we communicate with them?

“You know what today used to be?” Esther asks him, out of the green-blue sky that is still swinging, shifting behind her head. He is startled. He did not think she would know either what day it was in the old calendar, nor remember that they were once not the only two vegans on the planet. At least the continent.

“Dia de Muertos,” she says. He is confused. She cocks her head at him, smiles. “The Day of the Dead. In Mexico. Remember? They all get dressed up. Like Hallowe’en. They celebrate the lives of the family and friends they’ve lost.”

He is sitting cross-legged on the floor of the clearing. Below him he watches an ant, oblivious, walk across a grass stalk. Maybe she went to Mexico with other people, he thinks, before he arrived. But there were enough Mexicans in Santa Cruz to mark the occasion, of course. The students would have picked up on the theme.

“I remember,” he says. “You know it’s World Vegan Day, too. Was.”

She looks at him, and doesn’t turn away. “It still is.”

“Is it?”

She leans over and takes his hand. “While we are still here. Yes.”

“So it’s the day of the dead too,” he says. “Still.”

“And your birthday,” she says. She smiles. “Well, tomorrow of course. Did you think I would forget?”

He laughs despite himself. Why despite? Because, outrageously, there is the hope that she has made him a present. Even a cake? No, impossible. But a present. And for a moment he has a surge of pleasure in his gut, that rushes through into his chest, that it is all okay, that it is still 2014 or 2017 before they lost the sanctuary, and he has to turn away because there are at least two conflicting measures of hurt and love in his face and to be the spectacle of grief, all of a sudden, on this day, when she is being so caring, would drive him insane.

She sits back, turns away. It was too late, anyway.

“Mourning,” she says, after a while, after they have both listened to the absences of the forest for a little while, long enough. “Corpses. The seed of remembering the dead.”

So we don’t lose any more,” he says quickly.

“So we can get on with loving,” she says instead.

She stands up, and offers her hand. He takes it. She pulls him up, and then walk a little way, leaving their gear, but no-one is close, they have smelt nothing, heard nothing, they are safe here tonight. They walk a little way through the trees, the dead pine needles soft underfoot, and they find a small rise from where they can look back down over the valley they have passaged. And they are both thinking, he knows, of their flock and pigs, of Bruce and Django, of Pale and King, of Lucy, of each of the animals they had taken in and cared for before the raid happened, and they were all slaughtered, and he could hear the moans of the three cows, a sound people used to think was normal, but what was ever normal in that world? And for some reason he thinks of a woman who was a friend once, who became over-dependent, and manipulative, and how he spent weeks frustrated with her, angry, until he learnt the Buddhist trick of carrying around with him a spoon to pick up and put down again like unwanted thoughts and emotions, to wash the spoon when done with, in forgiveness. To forget. How much energy and life he wasted on anger. And yet if he met the people now who took his animals, who slaughtered them with no compunction nor grace nor compassion, he would kill them, still. Carve their hearts out with that spoon.

“I didn’t think you’d come up with an abstract noun,” he says to Esther.

She laughs as loudly as she had done in a long while. Doubles up, even. He laughs too. She stands, kisses him.

“And there was me thinking I was not the romantic,” she says.


Later, before it gets too dark, he begins to write in the new bible. He is recalling as well as he can the words he remembers from that article he read on this day however many years ago–seven or eight, he thinks. But no, he can work it out. Today is November 1st 2018. So it could have been, only… he was in Santa Cruz. Working. It must have been 2013. The year of the badger cull in England. The year Tyson Foods sold their production to the Chinese. The year he thought it had begun, this awakening to what they were doing. The year before he had the idea for the sanctuary. Or rather, he smiles, not the idea, but the compulsion, and the accident of Bruce, the feisty Toggenburg, a beautiful sage coat, once he’d recovered from the abuse, once they had fed him, and gained his trust.

So he recalls as well as he can. It is the right subject, full of earth, and soil, and sadness. It is a lesson he wants the future to remember that he remembered.

Earth Ch. 23 V.3: Seeds of Mourning
“Mourning sets up connections. The most obvious one is toward the precarious life we are grieving. But mourning also has the possibility of introducing a community, a social reality of those who also mourn the passing of that life. We who mourn other animals, particularly those killed by humans for humans, are going to have to risk much for our recognition of that mourning. The first hope is the more we talk about it, the more we risk our social intelligibility, the more we will find others who will mourn with us, we will find others who understand the loss of these others. As we strive to make ghostly connections to slaughtered animals real, we will also make connections with others. In this sense, the social intelligibility of mourning is never permanent, but exists at every iteration of mourning. It can be changed at any moment, and every time we iterate that grief is a possibility for that change.” – James Stanescu, Summer 2012.

Mourning is perpetual, he adds in his own coda to this Verse.

Can one live in perpetual mourning? He looks up, sees Esther whittling at another icon. He remembers the touch of her hand, the hardness of her skin. Her words from earlier. While we are still here. Yes.

(Extract from a work in progress, a novel about boy-meets-girl as the world collapses and their attempts to build a sanctuary for animals in the new future)

Image (C) Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals

Novel Writing, Poetry, Writing Blog

April is the hardest month

April, it seems, is the hardest month. I come out of the blocks in January committed to making the most of the year, augmenting myself around the academic timetable and the knowledge I’ll have a break over Easter. Last year I wrote 200,000 words between January and April on a number of projects—the novel, book chapters, journal articles, journalism, a report, peer feedback. This was not counting the blog posts, emails, morning pages, feedback to students and sundry other updates. Then when April 6th came, as I was staying with friends in Falmouth, I opened my laptop one last time almost as if it were some medieval drawbridge and I the only soldier pulling on the rope, and I sat there in Café Nero at around 730am in the morning and I just could not write a single other word. My calf muscles had just snapped the day earlier out on a coastal run, and now my mind had gone too.

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Novel Writing, On Reading, Writing Blog

Notes on Stucture: Andrew Miller’s Pure

Andrew Miller’s Pure was the 2011 Costa Book of the Year. Set a few years before the French Revolution of 1789, it tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Baratte, and engineer, who is given the job of removing the cemetery of Les Innocents from Paris. Removing it complete, as it has become a physical and psychical stain on the city.

It’s a wonderful premise set in a turbulent time. But there’s something not quite right with the book. On the PhD at Newcastle, we were recently given a seminar by the prose playwright and senior lecturer Margaret Wilkinson on structure and narrative pace, taught how to be better readers-as-writers.

Margaret’s lesson is that there should be a few essential elements in each novel:

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Novel Writing, Running, Writing Blog

Murakami on Writing, Running

The thing I notice most about novelist Haruki Murakami’s style is this: a sense that when I pick up his work, the story has already been happening without me, and when I finish it and put it down, life inside is carrying on somewhere without me too. The fact there is a page 1 and an end page is almost accidental to the story.

His first book that I read, Dance Dance Dance, is about an unnamed protagonist who makes a living as a commercial writer and, for me, typifies this style. There is no real explanation for much of what happens and the motivation for the action comes from what has already gone before, before we meet the characters. This is not about a novelist dropping us into a plot in medea res, however. It is about creating a sense of open-endedness in character, perception and affect, as well as storyline.

Perhaps this open-endedness is something to do with Murakami’s life as a ‘running novelist’ that he captures in his travelogue/memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I read this over the summer, often sitting on a beach, or during a long walk, often alone. For a running would-be novelist, the book captures a sense of discipline and learning that is gently acerbic in its understanding of doing things of value (writing, running).

The value of running is always open-ended. Murakami experiences this when running a 62-mile ultra-marathon (well—wow). Beyond a certain point, he explains, “the end of the race is just a temporary marker without much significance. It’s the same with our lives. Just because there’s an end doesn’t mean existence has meaning. An end point is simply set up as a temporary marker, or perhaps as an indirect metaphor for the fleeting nature of existence.” As for running, as for the metaphors of writing.

There are two key essences in the book that make it worth reading, beyond an appreciation of Murakami’s own style, his almost poker-faced honesty (perhaps to do with the translation between cultures).

First: instructions for novelists

What makes a novelist? Murakami says he’s asked this in every interview he ever does. “The answer’s pretty obvious,” he says: “talent” (p.76). But he also knows what else is needed:

If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist, that’s easy too: focus—the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value… I generally concentrate on work for three or four hours every morning. I sit at my desk and focus totally on what I’m writing.

And from there, the third requirement is, “hands down, endurance”:

If you concentrate on writing three or four hours a day and feel tired after a week of this, you’re not going to be able to write a long work. What’s needed for a writer of fiction… is the energy to focus every day for half a year, or a year, or two years.

Murakami then goes on to express this in a fundamentally embodied way:

You can compare it to breathing. If concentration is the process of holding your breath, endurance is the art of slowly, quietly breathing at the same time you’re storing air in your lungs. Unless you can find a balance between both, it’ll be difficult to write novels professionally over a long time. Continuing to breathe while you hold your breath.

According to Murakami, “fortunately, these two disciplines—focus and endurance—are different from talent, as they can be acquired and sharpened through training.” Sitting down at the desk every day and concentrating on what you are writing is, for Murakami, the same as getting up every day and making the effort to go out running. It is the same training—the same requirement for a bit of talent, focus and endurance, to become a long-distance runner or a long-form writer. “Raymond Chandler once confessed that even if he didn’t write anything,” Murakami explains, “he made sure that he sat down at his desk every single day and concentrated… This is the way Chandler gave himself the physical stamina a professional writer needs. This sort of daily training was indispensible to him.”

Second: leading the curious life

The second essence, that is not written out so directly, is what brought Murakami, at the age of 33 (just a year younger than I am now) to begin his career as both a long-distance runner and a long-form writer of fiction. It was, in no small part, curiosity, and a curiosity about acquiring an openness to life, or even, I’d argue, an open-endedness to life.

Murakami went to college, ran a jazz bar, collected jazz records, got married, and had a whole host of life experiences before becoming a writer. On page 17, he says “By sticking my nose into all sorts of places, I acquired the practical skills I needed to live. Without those ten tough years I don’t think I would have written novels, and even if I’d tried, I wouldn’t have been able to.”

Curiosity then, “sticking my nose” into all sorts of things, to acquire practical skills to live. What are those skills? Murakami talks first and foremost about acceptance without judgement—one of the assets that Todd Kashdan describes of belonging to those ‘curious explorers’ who live fulfilled and happy lives. If we are open and do not close off judgement too soon – in Murakami’s words, “for now all I can do is put off making any judgements and accept things as they are” – then we are more able to see the potential novelty and meaning in any activity or moment, rather than searching for certainty.

For Murakami, this acceptance comes through the practice of concentration. Or, via running, through the “acquiring of the void” of a mental state where ideas do not fix themselves. As he explains:

I run to acquire a void… the thoughts and ideas that invade my emotions as I run are subordinate to that void. Lacking content, they are just random thoughts that gather around that central void…

The thoughts are like clouds in the sky… and like the sky, “it has substance and at the same time doesn’t. And we merely accept that vast expanse and drink it in.”

The suggestion is, to me at least, that it is this void, this ability to accept all ideas, thoughts and substance, that both is a practice of concentration and the thing within us that makes writing possible. Without that void, created by curiosity and what sounds a lot like mindfulness (“continuing to breathe while holding your breath”), writing long fiction is impossible. At least for Murakami.

And I feel for me. Writing, mindfulness, running, and an academic search for curiosity, decision and their relationship to literary acts: these are my ‘supplements’, so to speak. In Murakami’s words:

The methods and directions a writer takes in order to supplement himself becomes a part of that writer’s individuality, what makes him special.