Why do I write?

What is the underlying purpose of my writing? Do I write to entertain, to inform, to unravel mysteries, to promote ideas, to provide answers or to pose questions – to set cats among pigeons – or to settle scores? Do I write for the betterment of mankind or for my own aggrandisement in a vain attempt to construct a monument to my own ego? Is my motivation a cry for attention, or simply a crass tilt at fame and fortune; or do I write to satisfy a need in me to leave behind some enduring evidence of my existence – to secure a place for myself in history – to achieve immortality, even? Is it simply an exercise in self-justification, an attempt to reassure myself that my life has not been pointless, not squandered and lived in vain – that I am more than just a blip in the space-time continuum, seen by few, remembered by none? Or am I condemned to a lifelong search for the ephemeral truth that floats mysteriously through the miasma of perception, where the plausible deniability of fiction enables me to disclose, without self-incrimination, who I really am – the one constant in a world of ever-changing uncertainty? And if that is the case, is the truth, the real truth of me, hidden somewhere in my fiction?

from The Frailest Leaves

Advertisements

ON POST-MODERNISM

ENG_CD_0615

Why do we like to hear stories? Because they’re simple and straightforward and they make sense in retrospect; and what I mean by that is that when you arrive at the moment of climax and look back at what has transpired to bring you to that point, you invariably say to yourself: “I didn’t see that coming. But with the benefit of hindsight, it was bound to happen. ” And it was bound to happen because the author contrived that it should. But each story only represents part of the history we all share and creating it is akin to removing a single thread from a bolt of woven fabric with a complex and sometimes incomprehensible pattern. In its isolation, you can appreciate the elegant simplicity of the thread’s inherent structure, the pureness of its colour, the integrity of its purpose, its strength and its fragility. But life isn’t like that. Life is random. Life is chaotic. And despite our efforts and intentions, life is still pretty much a cocktail of chance and circumstance. But above all, life is unfair. Life is not a story, nor a series of stories, nor is it a complex interweaving of story lines that intersect and separate and perhaps even intersect again. Life is. Life happens. Shit happens; and it stinks, and you have to clean it off your shoe and for days afterwards you keep finding more bits of it that you swear weren’t there yesterday, but you have no choice but to hold your nose and grit your teeth and wipe it off because, when shit happens, it happens to you. So the purpose of the story is to facilitate our escape from that. No matter how violent, no matter how sordid, no matter how discomfiting it is for the protagonists travailing in its midst, you, the reader, can enjoy it because it is simple, it happens at its own pace following its own inherent logic, and best of all, it isn’t happening to you. You are merely an observer; an innocent by-stander. And then along came the post-modernists; and now there is shit everywhere. They bring us stories in their uber-reality with inconsequential details littering the pages: distractions, diversions – reality in all its mundane absurdity. Those pouting intellectuals with their smug self-awareness and lexical pyrotechnics, their intertextuality and unreliable narrators, their historiographic metafictions and poioumena and fabulation, have muddied the waters by taking an art form and turning it into a mirror. In their stories, we are not looking at some ideal we aspire to become, nor some archetype of evil from whom we want to and can easily distinguish ourselves, but the flawed, uncertain, anxious individuals we recognise as ourselves, the ones who are confounded by a life which appears to serve no other purpose than to perpetuate the species, give more power to the already powerful and add wealth to the already rich. For this reason, we need stories more than ever. Stories are windows to the future we all dream will become a reality; whereas mirrors only pander to vanity or despair.

The Art and Craft of Writing

2-AUS_D0_2000

As I see it, creative writing comprises two major components: art and craft.

Craft, I believe, can be taught. It is the equivalent to mastering the materials and tools of a trade which, in the case of writing, comprise primarily words on a page. But dig deeper and you find that, in addition to vocabulary and semantics, the tools of the writer include grammar and punctuation, sentence and paragraph construction, the rhythm and sonority of coexisting words, and perhaps the most elusive and nebulous of all, the connotations released by those words in specific contexts. All of those instruments can be taught. But they cannot all be learned to the same degree of proficiency. Any able-bodied person can be taught the rudimentary techniques of playing the violin, but not everyone will learn to play it with the skill and passion of a Paganini.

And sometimes, for some students, the application of craft can get in the way of their creativity. Teaching the craft of writing is often more about don’ts than dos; and the novice writer can find himself caught in the trap of avoiding pitfalls rather than allowing his inner voice free rein to express itself with fire and passion. There are clichés to be avoided and speech tags to be eschewed. Never write in the passive voice and be careful of over-using the same words or expressions. Be precise! Never use an exclamation mark outside inverted commas. Don’t use those vague words like they and it. (Where was Dickens’ craft teacher when he started writing A Tale of Two Cities, I wonder.) Abandon all ye who enter here all adverbs and adjectives. And for goodness sake: SHOW, DON’T TELL. I once had the temerity to enter the first page of Joyce’s Ulysses into one of those style checking programs, and it failed dramatically.

The art of writing, on the other hand, is something that I believe can be learned but not taught. It is learned by living a life and observing and reflecting on the actions of the life lived and their consequences. And one’s learning can be further supplemented by reading and absorbing the manner in which other writers have conveyed their experience using only those abstract symbols a writer has at his disposal. I believe a writer who makes you feel something when you read his or her work is a writer from whom you can learn a great deal.

From an early age, certainly pre-teen, I was drawn to writing. But over the years, I have slowly come to accept the probability that I will never achieve the greatness to which that early version of me aspired. At first, I resisted the notion of failure and strove to overcome it. Being a writer was synonymous to me then with being an author. But gradually I learned to temper my ambition. Now I write because I enjoy writing. I have no ulterior motive. I endeavour to improve, to make each new piece I write better than its predecessors, treating each one as an essential step on a long ladder to self-fulfilment. Am I deluding myself, telling myself that being an author doesn’t matter? Perhaps. But if it is merely a subterfuge, it is one that hurts no one, not even me.

Sometimes, I read articles by or about authors whose work I admire – I like to know their experience in the process of writing – and to my frequent surprise and great satisfaction, I find that often they describe experiences which I, myself, have known and enjoyed, more modestly perhaps but enjoyed nevertheless. So when I compare myself to them, I can see only two points of difference, neither of which deters me from the path I am on. Firstly, their writing is more accomplished than mine. And secondly, they are paid for what they write. But when I write, I do not feel obliged to follow any literary conventions, or bow to the demands of publishers who seek to steer the tone or content of my manuscript towards a more lucrative outcome; and I don’t feel a need to pander to a public demanding that I fulfil their expectations. I have no public. I am a writer, not an author. But I am happy. And I am free.

When Alice met Jerry

Back in August, while travelling in North America, I hoped to meet an Internet friend and namesake, Heather Munro, during a changeover at Minneapolis Airport – but she couldn’t make it. So, I went to a bookshop in the airport and bought a book of short stories by another namesake, Alice Munro, instead. I had flown to Minneapolis en route from Vancouver, Canada to Kansas City, Missouri and while in Vancouver, I’d spent a couple of days across the bay in Victoria. Had I known then what I know now I would have bought the same book in Munro’s Bookshop in Victoria which was established by Jim Munro and his first wife Alice – yes, the same Alice – in 1963. But coming out of Bastion Square onto Government Street, I turned left towards the intriguingly named Trounce Alley and inadvertently away from the bookshop which was only a few doors down on the right.

At the time, I was going through a period of serious self-doubt. Not so much about my writing itself – because I’m well aware of my limitations – but about the wisdom of spending so much time writing stuff that hardly anyone will read and even fewer will enjoy. The whole endeavour appeared increasingly pointless; and yet I could conceive of no other way I’d rather spend my time. So I bought a volume of Alice Munro’s short stories in the hope that they would inspire me and teach me and enable me to derive more satisfaction from what I was doing.

Part of the problem, too, was that I had been reading books about writing in the hope that if I could master the craft of writing I would derive more satisfaction from what I produced. But the more I read the more complex and unfathomable the process of creating fiction seemed to become. Before long, and without realising it, I had amassed a litany of reasons for NOT writing; these taking the form of all the faux pas that incompetent writers commit in their stumbling attempts at writing fiction. And before long I had reached a point where, when I sat down to write I felt inhibited by all the rules I had read about and the many more rules I felt were out there, waiting to entrap me. The freedom to write I had once enjoyed had dissipated and the joy of creating had been replaced by a fear of creating something that was an abomination.

I had bought the book of short stories by Alice Munro, hoping that I could learn, by osmosis, the rhythms and cadences of short story writing from one who is regarded as a modern master of the medium. Inside the cover, however, I found a citation from the Washington Post, from which I now quote: “The stories of Dear Life violate a host of creative writing rules (my italics), but they establish yet again Munro’s psychological acuity, clear-eyed acceptance of frailties and the mastery of the short story form.” In other words, the rules I had been struggling to master, the Master breaks with abandon and impunity.

I did not finish the book; and that is all I am prepared to say about it, being far from qualified to pass judgement. But having reached that point, the future was looking even bleaker. Then I saw the documentary film: Salinger.

The Catcher in the Rye was one of three books that convinced me I wanted to be a writer. The other two were: Kerouac’s On the Road, and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. I had read them all when I was still young – they are books that ought to be read when one is young – and they combined to set the tone for much of the rest of my life. But until I saw the biopic, it was a mystery to me why Salinger had apparently abandoned writing after publishing his masterpiece.

Salinger wanted, above all else, to be a writer; and his measure of success was to be published in the New Yorker. Time after time his work was rejected; yet he persevered. In 1941, the New Yorker rejected seven of his stories and even when Slight Rebellion off Madison was accepted in December of that year, the attack on Pearl Harbour rendered it “unpublishable”. The Fates seemed to be conspiring against him. But he was determined to succeed; and eventually, the New Yorker accepted and published his short story, A Perfect Day for Bananafish in 1948.

Throughout the Forties, Salinger had been developing an idea based on the lead character in his short story, Slight Rebellion off Madison – Holden Caulfield. Now that he had finally been published in the New Yorker, an avenue for his novel opened up and The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, spending 30 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Salinger had made it. But success, apparently, was not all that it was cracked up to be; and two years later he moved out of the spotlight of New York City to the seclusion of Cornish, New Hampshire.

Salinger had been notoriously protective of the integrity of his prose, even of his punctuation; and in his seclusion, he became even more determined to write what he wanted to write, rather than fashion stories that would appeal to editors and publishers. Some might argue that this self-indulgence would lead to a deterioration of his prose. But it suggests to me that Salinger had learned one of the most important lessons in life: one should not stake one’s happiness on something that is outside one’s control.

To most people, being a writer means being published, writing books that sell; it means being acclaimed; and ultimately, it means becoming a celebrity. Initially, Salinger seemed to strive for precisely this; but ultimately, he recognised the emptiness of such ambition. He realised that he didn’t want to be a writer after all. What he really wanted to do was to write.

Alice Munro has spent a lifetime writing the stories she wanted to write and today, she was rewarded with the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Congratulations Alice.

Deafening Silence…

I gave an early draft of my first ever manuscript for a novel to my then girlfriend to read. She’d asked to read it; was quite enthusiastic about reading it, in fact. But when she brought it back to me a few days later, she told me that she was breaking up with me.  Her reason: