Friday, 27 February 2009

Do stop to admire the view sometimes

I am a terrible back seat driver. My right foot tenses every ten seconds and takes at least nine to relax. The instructor who taught me to drive was surely a saint. How he managed to turn my gibbering self into a competent driver is testament to his heavenly status. 
Reading a good book is like going for a smooth drive. An awareness of the author's expertise drops away and there are no emergency stops every few paragraphs or U-turns across central expositions. You feel in safe hands. Plots unfold, characters speak in real voices. But sometimes, something happens which can pull you up short and take you out of the story momentarily because you want to linger. It can be a moment of high drama perhaps or exquisite beauty. I think of these moments as being akin to driving along a high-banked Devonian lane and coming across a five-bar gate through which a marvellous vista unfolds, layer on every deepening layer in to the far, far blueyonder.
Usually it's a paragraph or sentence, but occasionally just using that word in that particular place can be so arresting that I gasp. Obviously the context is overwhelmingly important but an example might serve a small purpose. In Larry's Party by Carol Shields we learn all there is to know about Larry. This is a character led novel. Each chapter is about aspects of Larry's life; his clothes, his folks, his work etc. He is likeable but in many ways unremarkable. In common with a lot of men, his work is important to him. 
This is what she says:
Years later, when his life was going badly, he came to see work as the only consolation for persisting in the world.
This sentence caused me to look up and reflect and indeed still reflect upon from time to time. Its content raises questions. Is life work? For example. But it is its construction that I find so interesting. It lies very early on in the novel but points to the future, a long way in the future, to when Larry's life is going badly. Now, Carol Shields does not say in what way it is going badly, Does he divorce? Get made redundant or in bad health? She is not specific but because we already like Larry, we want to find out. It is a signal: plot ahead. It must be quite bad too, this badness, because it is about his whole life. Carol Shields uses words that have a certain gravitas: consolation implies a lot of grieving, persisting requires effort. Without it perhaps Larry would be in mortal danger. Work saved him. Was it touch and go? Was there nothing and no one else there for Larry? I am hooked, lower my eyes and read on. The sentence could have read: 
Years later, when the going got tough, work was a great comfort.
Not the same, is it?

Thursday, 26 February 2009

You've got to learn somehow.

You know those disclaimers at the beginning of novels that say all the characters in this book are entirely imaginary etc etc.? This is mine. I didn't want to start a new blog with an apology, so I'm going to have a disclaimer instead. Here it is: if you thinks that I am writing about you, think again. The chances are it isn't just you but loads of you and me too, over and over. Who hasn't fallen into the traps that writing scatters before our every step? 

Okay, nuff o' that.

The subheading Creative Reading Matters just as much is really about what I am doing every time someone hands me a piece of work. I am asking myself questions all the time but the main one is does this work? By which I mean, is the writer conveying to me a coherent piece or do I, as the reader have to bust a gut trying to make sense of it? Pretty basic stuff, you'd think, but you'd be amazed. Often, in the class, if the writer is reading their work, then they automatically make it make sense, sometimes with little asides of explanation. This will not do, I say! There is a wealth, a mountainous treasure trove of material out there to look at and learn from. It's called books! 

The downside of writing is that you can very rarely read a book with the abandon of those pre-writing years. Read with attitude! Read with your thinking caps nailed to your head with lots of those plastic covered wiry hair grips and keep asking yourself, how did they do that? What was it about that sentence, paragraph, chapter, plot, character, description, that worked so well/not well? Why did they use that word? And why put them in that particular order? Why not write he ran hurriedly down the street?

This isn't about copying, it's about learning how to use the tools for you to make your piece of music / furniture / work of art / novel.

And its about knowing when to stop because it's getting boring. 

Wednesday, 25 February 2009


Welcome to Creative Writing Matters. This blog is primarily a continuation of the wittering on I do in my Creative Writing classes. So often, I arrive home with a head full of more pertinent thoughts than I expressed at the time. Maybe, this blog will act as a vehicle for them. 
Or I might just bung on the telly, like last night when I watched the final episode of The Wire Season 3 and I can only say the air was entirely removed from my lungs. Wonderful.

Talking of The Wire reminds me of the Oscar winning Man on Wire about the remarkable Phillipe Petit who walked between the Twin Towers on a tightrope. I saw this film with three friends and afterwards opinion was divided exactly down the middle. Man walks across wire, end of story, film could have been all over in ten minutes - that was one view. The other, including mine, was that it was completely gripping from start to finish, the feat was amazing but the man...the man was just extraordinary! Obsessional, egotistical, insane perhaps, but overwhelmingly interesting because was not as other human beings. To see him lying down on the wire. Eeeek! Above the void he is devoid of fear (Look upon the pun as a curiosity!). My point, about this film and its relevance to writing, is that there is a lot of too-ing and fro-ing theses days about whether your story should be plot led or character led. Perhaps the answer is that it is better not try to jump through hoops to suit others if hoops (or highwires) aren't your thing. Good plots with flat characters bore me to tears but they sell millions at stations and airports. Ultimately the reader decides by choosing which they like best. Occasionally, the combination of good plot and good characterisation come together. That's called alchemy. 

Pertinent thought from last night? Visual jokes don't work on paper. Jokes that involve words that sound the same but are spelt differently, don't work on the radio. I shall be delighted to be proved wrong on both counts.